Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pircay and DRM

For those that don't live in this century, piracy isn't just something that happens off the coast of Somalia, there is a whole other kind. We call it digital piracy. Companies that make digital media have reacted lately with what they call digital rights management (DRM). I have strong opinions about this. I originally posted this at my gamespot blog:;blog1

I repeat it hear.

The issue of piracy and DRM are ever present in the gaming community with many different perspectives. Lately, the rage over this has shown up in two very well written blog entries. bacchus2 recently revisited his thoughts on the issue in his signature calm and well thought out manner. That he is patient with my anti-establishment rage when I comment on his blog is a great virtue. Aberinkulas laid down the gauntlet and declared his allegiance to the rebellion the other day. While perhaps more emotional, his presentation aims like a laser at one of the two key points people should understand about piracy and DRM. I would suggest reading both blogs - especially because they represent well different sides of the issue. I feel today that there needs to be a central argument to the anti-DRM discussion. This entry is my first attempt at this. I hope any who read will add or subtract from the argument as they see deserving.

Let's start by admitting piracy is real and piracy is common. I have a couple of pirated cds myself. I got them in college and I have yet to divest myself of them. Knowing this I know firmly that piracy is real and it does have an effect on the industry. I will not make a claim that some do that piracy helps the industry (though I won't argue against that claim either). I will not argue that piracy is too small an effect to be noticed. Piracy exists and it has an effect of the developers and publishers of digital media.

That out of the way, I want to ask the question, can we do anything about piracy? My answer is yes. There is one sure fire way to stop digital piracy. The way we stop digital piracy is by no longer having music, videos, video games or any other item that can be viewed digitally. This is the only way to stop piracy. There are those in the industry who will tell you that DRM can be used to minimize piracy or slow it down. If someone tells you that, they are either ignorant or telling you a lie. The simple fact of the matter is that millions upon millions of dollars have been spent on DRM software meant to control how you use a product and there has been absolutely no evidence that such DRM has saved or created one penny of wealth for the developers or publishers of digital media. It is true that this is difficult to measure but for the last decade, people have been working on DRM related to PC software and the fact of the matter is that in that time, for all that money spent, the PC video gaming industry has shrunk in volume, record labels are unable to compete with itunes, which recently removed DRM from their products and videos have only become easier to access on the internet - often directly provided for free by the tv channel that produced a show. There may be some snotty person out there who will demand I back this up with numbers and studies but I can gauruntee these are the trends that have occured in the digital media world. TV shows are offered online for free directly from the producers, volume of music sales have increased even as music piracy runs rampant and the record labels recede into meaninglessness and the PC video game industry is in tatters. For all the DRM we have created, for all the money and effort and time people have invested in it, for the purposes of any form of entertaining media, DRM has not saved a company one penny.

The reason for this is simple. DRM is propietary software written by a limited group of people with a limited budget and a limited time frame. Cracking DRM is a time honored tradition amongst the largest most talented and skilled group of computer programmers in existance - the general public. There is absolutely nothing one company can do to protect their digital products from the general public. The general public has all the expert programmers and electrical engineers in the world at their disposal. DRM producers will never be able to compare to that. So without a doubt, DRM does not stop piracy. DRM doesn't even slow piracy. New versions of DRM merely provides a challenge that the best and the brightest of the world eagerly seek to overcome - and these best and brightest, they don't even care about what they are making a crack of. There's not even any money in it for them. Most of the time, they don't bother to listen to the music or play the game. That's not why they do it. They do it to show us how smart they are. I know. I am a physicist and a programmer at that. I share an office with one such individual. I personally know five others. Each on of them has left their own personal mark on the DRM-breaking world. They don't do it to get access to some product they didn't pay for. They do it to show off. The problem every DRM developer faces is that the six people I know who break DRM aren't even a meaningful fraction of the total group who does this. DRM-breaking is the most popular technical pass-time for the incredibly intelligent. There simply is no ammount of resources that can be used to overcome that.

So this establishes that DRM is a complete waste of time. In fact, it is a myth, perpetrated by companies looking for money from producers of digital media. The sole benefactor of DRM are the computer programmers who program DRM and the companies that sell DRM software to others. Knowing this, I ask, what is the real effect of DRM? The answer to this is the most obvious I've ever seen. Just go read Aberinkulas's blog. That is a perfect example of the rage DRM inspires in law abiding customers who pay good money for their video games. The only thing DRM accomplishes is saying to the customer, I don't trust you to do the right thing so I will put you through meaningless hoops. This is absolutely a failed business model and every example and every case of DRM use reinforces this. The most poignant case is that of Spore. Spore was perhaps the most anticipated game of the latter part of 2008. It received great reviews, but it's sales were comparatively dismal. This is a case where we had a game with lot's of excitement about it. There was lot's of hype. It got wonderful reviews. My friends tell me it's a really good game. Why then would it not have stellar sales? - draconian DRM. With this argument I put the following forward to game developers and producers, to music labels, to anyone considering the use of DRM in their products. If you are considering the use of DRM realize that the only reason you would want to use it is if you don't want sales. There can be reasons why you'd want a game to flop. For one, you might want to put yourself in a lower tax bracket. If you feel that is neccesary, you can move yourself in that direction by the use of DRM. For another, you may hate life and all people and want to destroy your company so everyone who works for you can be out of a job and you then commit suicide. But if these aren't your motivations, do not use DRM! It will only hurt you.

The links are likely broken. Go to my original to find these incredible minds.


  1. Check out "Appetite for Self-Destruction" by Steven Knopper. It's a good book about the recording industry, no so much novel information, but he did a lot of interviews so you get a sense of personalities and it functions really as a master narrative of the time from the CD to the music industry as a consultancy which will give away music as a promotional tool (as per the recent article in TechCrunch). Just downloaded it on my Kindle (heavily DRMed) and it's a fun read.

    btw, how do you feel about DRM on books? I'm surprised at how it doesn't bother me like it did with music, and would we ever pay to see our authors in concert?

  2. Umm, generally against it but I think the DRM on books issue is still rather in it's infancy. Yes, there are digital books to be had, but most people are still buying them in hard version requiring paper and ink which makes piracy kind of silly. In the end though, novels won't be published by publishers, merely poster as blogs.