I’ve already talked before about innovation gone wrong, where it has been very firmly in a linear manner where radical innovation is necessary, because going too far down one road isn’t actually working, but there are cases where innovation has actually been failing for too long, that it’s almost incredible to behold.
I give you: Digital Rights Management, formerly known as copy protection.
Let me explain the concept behind DRM before I explain where it’s gone so badly wrong.
In creative markets (films, TV, books, computer programs etc), you will always have content producers and content consumers – this is naturally the basis for supply and demand, of course. And in those markets, there will always be a sector of the market who simply do not wish to pay the market price. Perhaps they can’t, perhaps they just don’t want to (there are enough out there who simply expect everything to be free, after all) – either way, they will likely attempt to source creative works in other ways.
With technology available today, it is possible to get all kinds of creative works in a totally digital format, that is convenient to redistribute without too much trouble, and this is where the problem starts.
If material is easy to redistribute, people will tend to share it amongst each other, leading to there being far more consumers consuming the content than actually purchased it, which for content creators, is not really a good thing – because in many cases the onward redistribution is of negligible cost, with no revenue going to the creator. And sure enough, if people don’t see revenue, they will stop producing creative works.
So, throughout the years, various techniques have been employed to attempt to prevent unlicensed redistribution of content, which in principle is a wonderful idea, but here’s the snag: it never works. And increasingly, the techniques being used are more and more aggressive, to the point where genuine content purchasers are put at more inconvenience than those who unlawfully redistribute, because they remove it first.
The first case I would note is the banner/trailer you see on DVDs, which reminds you that copying DVDs is a crime. Various of those exist, the current DVDs tend to have a “You wouldn’t steal a <item> / But copying DVDs is also stealing” message, for example, yet if you acquire a ‘pirated’ version of a DVD, the banner is nowhere to be found; thus regular users are forced to watch through this message, unlawful ones are not.
The measures employed in computer games tend to be worse, however. In recent times, a popular game called Spore attracted much attention. Aside from only being able to be installed 5 times without having to call the company up to unlock it (which is fine if you have a super-large hard drive and are able to avoid uninstalling it to save space, but most of us don’t), it actually added software into the underlying operating system that altered the behaviour of DVD drives to prevent it being abused.
The funny thing is, a pirated version without this protection was available via the internet in less than a day of release of the game – so those who downloaded it unlawfully had none of the restrictions and none of the inconveniences suffered by regular users.
The core problem is that there is a conflict of interest between consumers and producers; and innovation from one may not benefit the other, but DRM is an active problem: in an attempt to push forward the interests of producers, consumers are actively troubled.
This is not a new problem, and as new platforms are discovered, new problems arise – for example, this article from Engadget highlights the problems with video on the iPad where a legitimate user was barred from playing correctly-obtained content for no valid reason.
All this leads me to is the conclusion that we need to do some more innovating – but not down this road. Like a number of issues we face today, there are both technical and sociological causes and effects – and a purely technical solution cannot address them.