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The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that DRM is for the dinosaurs, and the only way the media industry can avoid the mistakes of the past is to face the fact that, no matter what they do, content will be passed around—and the best response is to leverage the enthusiasm that led to that sharing, rather than kill it with threats and intimidation.

I’m not talking about large-scale piracy here. Obviously, the rampant copyright and trademark infringement seen in China and elsewhere must be fought doggedly. No individual or corporation has the right to profit from that which you own. I’m talking about one-on-one social sharing. As I pointed out in a blog back in April, there is nothing new about such activity, and attempts by publishers today to stamp it out will prove no more successful than those made by the record companies that tried to stop illegal taping in the 1980s and 90s.

Most people in my generation discovered favorite artists via the mix tape, and the Sonys and Warner Brothers of the world squandered oceans of goodwill by making enemies of those kids who did all that guerilla marketing for them. Meanwhile, bands like the Grateful Dead, who blatantly allowed “tapers” to record and sell tapes of their live shows, raked in the cash from their legions of passionate, devoted fans. That’s long-term thinking for you! (Never mind what the Dead might have done over the years to affect their short-term memory … )

So what should publishers do? Well, I was reminded of all this recently by a blog postOpens in a new window from publishing industry guru (and Book Business guest columnist) Richard Nash, titled, “Why We’re DRM Free (and it’s not because we trust you).” Nash believes social media sharing should be tolerated—even encouraged—because there is nothing more convincing than a friend’s endorsement. At the same time, if you make content easy to buy, people are less likely to pirate it.

The biggest problem with the New York Times‘ paywall is not the fact of having to pay—it’s the amount of money and time commitment required up front and the lack of choice in packages. (What if someone only wants to buy today’s edition, or only wants the theater section? They’ll just end up getting the news and information elsewhere—or find other ways to read those articles.)

“You put a lot of money down right up front, and you get a lot of content, but [paywalls are] a big barrier for a lot of people, because … you may only want some of it,” noted Ben Oaks, Co-Founder of muCash, at the recent mediaIDEAS meetup in New York. “That’s where micropayments come in.”

muCash is a micropayment solutions provider, but Oaks’ point is a good one. People have become used to paying for things online even as they do more and more bouncing from one social media-recommended site to another. “That’s [publishers’] chance to interact with them and make some money off of them,” Oaks said.

So this is the critical juncture where Nash’s two points come together. If you make content easy to share, you’ll create new fans. If you make it easy to buy, very many will buy it—or buy other content from the brand or author later on. But you’ve got to grease the wheels. For him, that means enabling tools such as allowing readers to browse the full text of a book online for free.

“And if they do, and love it,” he writes, “somewhere down the turnpike they buy a paperback., or another digital download, or a limited edition of the next book or a previous book or a class.”

Via Publishing Executive


  1. You ask, “What if someone only wants to buy today’s edition, or only wants the theater section?” With my Sony, I can buy just today’s New York Times. Admittedly, I cannot buy just the theater section.

    The question not asked or answered is this: In the absence of paywalls, what will fund future editions of the newspaper?

  2. A well set out article that demonstrates the idiocy of the DRM obsession.

    As regards the issue of wanting specific section or only one issue, comparing the new e-world to the old paper world is a key mistake that too many publishers make.

  3. “Obviously, the rampant copyright and trademark infringement seen in China and elsewhere must be fought doggedly.”

    With what? Unicorns and dandelions?

    DRM may not work, but in absence of any other way to protect content, it’s not surprising that content providers continue to use it… even if only in desperation. In fact, until someone comes up with something better, there’s little point in belaboring the unpopularity of DRM.

    It is worth noting, however, that a significant number of ebook-reading consumers use systems like the Kindle that make content acquisition fairly seamless, and most of them don’t even realize the DRM is there. So maybe DRM isn’t the odious construction it’s made out to be.

    So, instead of obsessing about DRM, we should move on to useful discussions about how to protect content creators’ rights and property.

  4. So let’s recap here … DRM is a weapon against “rampant copyright and trademark infringement seen in China and elsewhere” ?

    The only people DRM is in any way even the slightest bit effective against are individual non-computer savvy honest people.

    In conclusion I suggest that the original hypothesis of the article wins out ….

    DRM is a continuous poison to the whole eBook business model and the idea that users are oblivious to it is incredibly naive. Talk to anyone who has changed eReader device, who wants to buy eBooks from the ‘wrong’ provider.

    DRM needs to end. The faster the better.

  5. Wonderful commentary. The one issue I have is with the use of the word “sharing”. Is one actually “sharing” a file over a social network or “giving” that file away? Typically, sharing connotes some sort of ownership, or in digital terms, licensing. An independent musician or an artist may share a file over a social network, but they are the proper owners of such intellectual property. How can one share something that was never one’s property to begin with?

    As relates to the example of the mixed tape, I never used the phrase “shared a mixed tape”. Someone would either give you a mixed tape or make you a mixed tape. They might share their album with you, in which case you either listened to it and returned it or made your own copy of it and returned it. Or, in the worst case, never returned it and jeopardized a friendship.

    Also, another question I have concerns who has the right to share in a one-to-one transaction. If I bought an ebook, perhaps I could share it. But what if my ebook is a copy I received from someone else who did actually buy it–do I have the right to share it even if I did not purchase it? How many times can an ebook be copied and shared? Or copies of copies be shared?

    Please do not take this point as reflecting a pro-DRM or a DRM soft position. I think the issue is complicated but I would prefer to err on the side of the honor code and trust. I care little for the profits of multinational corporations except as it related to the livelihoods of creators and workers (editors, assistants, designers, etc.). I think you should always try to concentrate your energy on those that are honest and not always design systems out of fear and distrust. But I also want to see fair compensation. I dislike it when people claim musicians should stop trying to make money through recordings and make money through performances or authors should try to make money through advertisements or personal appearances instead of through sales. It might work for someone, but it does not work for all musicians and writers.

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