steam_logo The Wolfire Games Blog has an interesting post about online-only DRM of the sort we mentioned a few weeks ago, that keeps soldiers and others with poor net connections from playing the latest Ubisoft games.

Wolfire points out that Valve created a very similar system in the form of Steam, the on-line installer/game catalog through which Valve sells its and others’ games—but with a couple of crucial differences. For one thing, Steam allows people to play its games off-line. For another, Valve added considerable value, making Steam useful to gamers as well as content providers.

Where gamers were originally upset over having Steam forced upon them with Half-Life 2, now they absolutely love it:

This invasive layer that was originally getting in people’s way now helps gamers find out about game sales, chat with friends, download their purchased games to other computers. What was once derided as DRM is now perceived as such a value add to gamers that Gabe Newell can go out in public and denounce DRM and no one really calls him on it.

What I wonder is, could something like this be applied to other media that also use DRM? What would be the equivalent system to Steam for e-books?

In a way, a number of modern e-book stores are already there. eReader/Fictionwise (since the iPhone), Kobo, Amazon’s Kindle (and Kindle iPhone app)—all of these services allow you to buy books from your net-connected device, then download them directly into it, just as Steam lets you do with games. (Granted, it’s a bit of a stretch with eReader and Fictionwise, given that you have to purchase the books from a separate web browser, then use the iPhone app to download them, but still.)

Though, given that Baen does this without DRM, and some of Fictionwise’s books don’t have it either, it may not be exactly equivalent.


  1. The good thing about Valve’s DRM is that your purchases are linked to your account rather then being linked to a device. You can log into your Steam account from any computer anywhere and play the games you have paid for. This lulls people into a false sense of control.

    The bad thing is that your account becomes the one single point of control. If your account is revoked for any reason you lose everything. And you have no true rights over your account. Steam could be purchased today by a big gaming conglomerate and they could revoke your rights or totally change them at their whim.

    So, Jason is right. There is no good DRM. There is abusive DRM and there is slighly less abusive DRM. We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the slightly less abusive DRM is actually “good”.

  2. I have to agree with Binko here.

    DRM is, pretty much by definition, anti-consumer.

    IMHO, it’s also not a big deal- it’s not even in the top 5 of things that are screwing up ebooks. But people can’t stop griping about it simply because there is no upside (to the consumer).

    • Wow, comment necromancy.

      “We now present the ultimate grudge match! In this corner we have the Perfect, who has had a long-running feud with the contestant at the other end of the ring, the Good Enough…”

      Yes, any DRM is going to be restrictive in some way, and that’s bad. But on the other hand, it’s been shown that if game companies do leave off DRM, gamers will happily pirate the games anyway, even if they cost as little as 1 penny to buy legitimately. While I’d rather have something without DRM than with, and it’s widely recognized DRM only serves as a speed bump to piracy rather than a locked gate, I can hardly blame publishers for wanting to do something to cut down on it even just a little.

      As long as vast quantities of gamers are going to be willing to pirate even DRM-free games at the drop of a hat, I don’t see game DRM going away. There will be no “perfect”. On the other hand, Valve’s DRM doesn’t get in my way of playing the games I buy from them, and that’s “good enough” for me to be going on with. I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough.

      Furthermore, I think complaining about relatively benevolent DRM with the same vehemence with which you complain about truly abusive DRM leads to people ignoring you for “crying wolf”. You get pigeonholed as the person who complains on ideological grounds about things other people find ridiculous, so nobody listens to you even when you do have a point. (For example, Richard Stallman.) So I’d rather save my objections for the DRM that really hurts consumers rather than the kind they don’t even notice.

      If Steam’s system should eventually be turned against the consumers, I’ll be the first to raise hell about it. But given how many people find it unobjectionable right now, I still think Valve is doing things right.

  3. Chris, Binko is quite right to mention the risks of DRM products completely tied to your account. This risk may be less than the massive inconvenience and exploitation we suffer from ebook DRM in general, but it exists and needs to be recognized.

    You only have to read customer fora for (e.g.) Sony and Apple to see what happens to the customer when his/her account is compromised or arbitrarily blocked.

  4. The fact of the matter is that whether successful in preventing a net loss in sales or not, nobody likes copy protection and DRM – not legitimate purchasers who may experience problems with it, not the pirates who have to work to crack it, and not the developers and publishers who have to pay substantial sums to the companies that own the technology, not to mention having to face the constant negative publicity and tech support requests.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail