Why you should care about DRM.

imageA good friend of mine, Ian, has unwittingly provided a good way to illustrate why we should all care about DRM. I wanted to share Ian’s story with you.

Before I tell you the Ian’s tale, let’s talk about what DRM is. It’s a technology that limits what you can do with digital content. DRM is an acronym, but what DRM actually stands for depends on what your point of view is. The big media companies that created DRM say it stands for Digital Right Management. People who don’t support locking out features inherent in digital content say DRM is short for Digital Restrictions Management.

If you’ve bought a movie or music online over the past few years, you’ve probably got DRM on some of the things you’ve bought. Public sentiment over the digital restrictions swelled to a point where most music online is now sold without DRM, but that doesn’t mean DRM is gone.

The DRM Story You Should Hear

Ian had his Amazon account canceled. The reason for the cancelation isn’t germane illustrating how DRM is bad, but since it’s a question I’m sure you might be asking I’ll include it. Ian had returned several expensive, and what he believes to be defective items, to Amazon which triggered something in Amazon system to cancel his account. Amazon deleted his account and told him any future accounts would also be deleted.

To defend Amazon for a moment, as a business owner, you have no obligation to do business with someone who you think is unprofitable for you to do business with. I have no problem with Amazon canceling someone’s account. The problem in this story arises with past purchases that have DRM applied to them. In Ian’s case, the books he had bought with his Kindle are wrapped in DRM. That DRM is tied to the Amazon account books were purchased under. If there is no Amazon account those DRMed ebook files are no longer unlockable since you’d need to log into an Amazon account to unlock them. To be clear, these are ebooks that are already paid for.

It’s true that if these ebooks are currently downloaded to Ian’s Kindle they can be read, but they’re readable only as long as his particlar Kindle works. Like most electronics, they do break sometimes. I know of 3 Kindle’s that have been replaced personally. Ebooks can’t transfer them to a new Kindle if the DRM they’re wrapped in doesn’t have an account associated with it.

Thankfully, after some communication between Ian and Amazon, Amazon has reinstated his account. Ian is happy and will basically not purchase any more big ticket items from them simply because he doesn’t want to be in the situation where he will need to return defective merchandise and face this situation again.

DRM stops you, not the pirates.

As a continuing percentage of our purchases switch to digital delivery, the content we buy is at greater and greater risk. You could find yourself at some point in the future with a library full of ebooks that disappear because your account is terminated, the company that sold them to you goes out of business, or if the company simply stops supporting “old” purchases. (For an example of a really big company stopping support for “old” DRM systems, read about Microsoft dropping support for their Plays For Sure DRM system here: http://blog.seattlepi.com/microsoft/archives/137120.asp)

DRM has not stopped illegal copies of digital works from appearing online, but it could potentially cost you a good deal of frustration and money if you’ve bought into a DRM system that changes it’s rules after you’ve bought content. I’m sure you’ve clicked “Accept” to a long legal disclaimer acquiescing your rights before you were allowed to purchase any DRMed content. These disclaimers usually give the content owner the right to change the rules that govern the content you are “purchasing” at their will, even after your transaction is over.

More on Ian’s story.

Ian’s experience with Amazon, his Kindle and DRM has really made the rounds on the Internet. You can read about is at Consumerist, Boing Boing, Engadget, Slashdot, Gizmodo, Electronista, IGN Gear, and Golem (in German). It’s picked up so much interest for a good reason. DRM harms the people who actually pay for content.

What can you about DRM?

Defective by Design, http://www.defectivebydesign.org/, provides a guide for DRM-free living on their site. http://www.defectivebydesign.org/guide.

I’ve also notice online activists use tagging on Amazon.com, a system where users add keywords to products, to label many DRMed items with the tags “drm infected.”

EFF logo

Personally, I support the Electronic Frontier Foundation with a monthly donation. The EFF is a group of lawyers, policy analysts, activists, and technologists fighting for your rights as a citizen in the digital age. DRM is not their primary focus, but a larger agenda of freedom in the digital space. You can find out more about them at their web site, http://www.eff.org.

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