DRM: To Prevent Piracy or Secure Loyalty?

The debate over the pros and cons of Digital Rights Management (DRM)—a layer of security that ties copyrighted works to a user in an effort to prohibit unlawful use or distribution—rambles on into 2018.

What started as a clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 to protect the infringement of copyrighted works such as movies, books, and music, has blossomed into a full-fledged debate on who owns, who can modify, and who can repair the products consumers purchase. These products range from cell phones and cars to children’s toys and ebooks, making it almost certain that everyone has at least one DRM-protected product in their home. The companies who place the DRM on these products control who uses, modifies, and distributes the copyrighted works and products.

A popular example of DRM in children’s toys comes with Sony’s robot dog, Aibo, which was recently re-released in Japan for $1,740 with a monthly subscription fee. Sony’s original robot dog, released in 1999, faced a boycott after the company forced a customer to remove the modifying code that made the dog dance and perform other tricks not found in Sony’s code. The company made sure to “double down” on DRM for the recent release, barring all modifications and ensuring consumer loyalty through subscriptions that allow the dog to operate only on Sony servers. And yes, the new Aibo does dance.

How does this relate to publishing? DRM is commonly used to deter unlawful distribution of an ebook purchased by a consumer. However, the debate circles around if DRMs actually prohibit piracy of an ebook or simply serve to keep the company relevant. Just as Sony uses DRM to stop modifications that enhance their code and ensure customer loyalty through subscriptions, DRMs can prohibit consumers from seeking other companies to support their digital ebooks.

For example: if a customer purchases Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for Amazon’s Kindle, they can only read this ebook for as long as they have an Amazon Kindle account (or the free app). If another company comes out with a newer, better ebook reader, the consumer cannot simply take their lawfully purchased Lincoln in the Bardo and consume it on the new reader, as DRM prevents this file maneuver. Writer Craig Mod aptly states:

The potential power of digital is that it can take the ponderous and isolated nature of physical things and make them light and movable….This is where DRM hurts books most….It artificially imposes the heaviness and isolation of physical books on their digital counterparts, which should be loose, networked objects.

In this instance, DRM locks files not only to prevent redistribution, but to prevent customers from moving on to the next big product down the road. The Kindle user may think twice about investing in the newest ebook reader, as that may involve losing their perfectly curated collection of sci-fi novels or giving up numerous files of crime dramas.

If copyright laws (as many judges have claimed in their copyright rulings, including the Authors Guild v. Google, the lawsuit over Google Books) are in place to promote innovation, DRM should do the same. Lawmakers should turn their ears toward consumers that wish to transfer lawfully purchased files across devices owned by different companies. The law was made to protect copyrighted works, not inhibit lawful consumer access. Infant companies should be able to strive for better readers and better ways to transfer purchasable files without worrying about big players like Amazon crushing them before inception. Innovation over monopolization!