DRM vs Sales

DRM vs SalesThere appears to be a belief in the entertainment industry that by putting heavy restrictions on the files paid for by real customers they will reduce piracy and increase sales – a belief that does not appear to have any backing from research into the area.

The first branch of the entertainment industry that was affected by the internet and large scale piracy was the music industry. They responded to widespread piracy via Napster and its successors by forcing restrictive DRM on digital music files once they finally got their act together to sell them digitally in the first place. Did that introduction of DRM help reduce music piracy? No. Piracy grew massively over the following few years, even though Apple had made buying digital music as simple as possible through its iTunes Store. With iTunes in place, people were turning to piracy for two reasons: restrictions (Apple’s FairPlay DRM); and price.

It is hard to justify why a person should pay for a music file that limits the number of devices you can listen to it on, and number of burns to a CD – when those who pirate the same songs are not limited in how and where they want to listen to that music. Not only were officially sanctioned music stores offering a higher price than piracy, they were offering a worse product. Piracy wasn’t falling but sales were – consumers were no enticed to purchase music they could only ever play on one brand of media player, and would be crippled if you ever upgraded your devices. It was no surprise, then, when eventually the major labels were persuaded to offer their music for sale as unprotected MP3s or high quality FLAC files – they worked out that they needed to compete with piracy.

People value ease of purchase, ease of download and ease of use. Whilst there is no way for entertainment companies to compete with the free pricetag on pirated goods, they can compete by offering better, higher quality products that work on any device, with easy purchasing and downloading available on any device at any time. Most people want to support the artists and content producers – but they will not pay for inferior products, products limited not by physical limits but by the desires of media execs.

With a comparison with film – if you buy a DVD from any shop online or off, then that DVD will play back on any DVD player (ignoring regional codes which are pretty much redundant these days) or digital device with the hardware capability. If you instead try and buy that same movie digitally then you will get a digital file that will be limited to the devices it is playable on, not because the other devices do not have the physical capability – but because the media execs do not trust their consumers not to pirate the content they just paid for, and still believe that consumers can be pushed into paying for the same content multiple times for it to work on multiple devices.

Yes previously people have re-bought content such as films first on VHS, then DVD and some even now on Blu-Ray, but they are doing so because the quality of the product has improved each time. If I purchase an HD download of a movie, I should not have to pay again to get that movie playable on my Android phone or iPad – those devices can play movies fine, the only reason I would have to is because entertainment companies treat their consumers as the enemy that they want to squeeze for each penny rather than keep as customers. Currently, the free MKV or AVI copies of movies available on piracy sites are not only cheaper than the official versions, but they can also be played on any media device that has the CPU power to decode them. They can also be converted to other formats with a few clicks using tools such as SUPER, to make the playable on lower powered devices. This is how consumers should be able to treat the media they have purchased in 2011, they should have control over how and where they want to play it – they should not be superficially limited.

The only effect that adding DRM to files has is to slow the adoption of such technologies by the general public who have been burnt numerous times by DRM schemes causing errors, installing erroneous rootkits, and blocking access. If the entertainment industry is serious about embracing the digital ecosystem then that means trusting their paying customers not to pirate their content. Locking down the content will not lead to more sales as David Pogue recently wrote in Scientific American, but freeing up that same content might.

The use of DRM has always, and will remain a futile attempt to swim upstream, and is yet to prevent the piracy of any movie, film, or ebook. All it does is waste money that the industry should be spending on new talent, and alienate paying customers. It is a strange world when a paying customer is treated worse by the official content owner than the pirate downloader who avoids that content owner completely.

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