Throughout the history of rights management its goal has been clear: limit what the end-user can do with a product. It doesn’t matter if the product was a digital copy of copyrighted material (putting the D in DRM) or in a physical product like printer ink and shaving cartridges. The goal was to make sure end users used the product only in ways approved by the manufacturer or by the copyright holder.
But while DRM may help the company’s bottom line and it may indeed prompt users to buy and use only licensed products, in the end it is almost always the loyal user that gets hurt. How so? Because it they end up being the ones playing by the rules and hence most limited by the DRM. Most limited usually results in more frustration, less enjoyment, and perhaps quicker abandonment.
Let’s take a look at two different use cases in the history of DRM. First, Sony’s blatant (and illegal) attempt to control what users did with music by preventing users from ripping and sharing CDs (this was in 2005, CDs were still a thing.) To do this, Sony installed two invasive and non removable pieces of software that were supposed to prevent CD copying. They inadvertently made the computer more vulnerable to third-party attacks and were deemed as malware. Users were also required to agree to a EULA that, among other limitations, required them to delete the CD from their computer if they moved out of the country. Ironically,the affected CDs were quickly pirated so that Sony achieved nothing with the new limitation. In the end, the only users affected were those that dutifully bought the CD and tried to listen to it on their PC. The users who had to deal with the hassle of dealing with the malware and its vulnerabilities were the ones who paid Sony. It was the piraters who got the better deal: music without the limitations.
Another case is the region limitations on DVDs. Zoning allowed studios to charge different prices for DVDs in different areas of the world and to control release dates. Again, who was hurt? Only the users who really want to buy the DVD. Perhaps they were travelling and saw it for sale in one country, only to come home and have a legally bought copy not playable on their device. Perhaps they moved to a different zone but didn’t want to repurchase their DVD collection. They were the ones frustrated by zoning. Others were more than willing to download a pirated copy in Europe once it had been released and shared online in the USA. The more technically savvy found a way to get around the zone limitations and in some countries, DVD players with no zone control were sold by various middlemen.
Two different stories this week got me thinking about the effects of DRM on loyal users again: the iTunes legal case and the requirement to use only official pods in the new Keurig 2.0 coffee makers. Both companies say they are/were trying to “protect the user” and provide a “high quality product” but they are really trying to control how consumers used their products and to make sure they only used their products in the future. In the case of iTunes, Apple was trying to lock in consumers into buying only their music players in the future because only iPods could play music bought in iTunes. Maybe not hurting the loyal users but certainly limiting their future choices. Smart business move, perhaps, but not one for engendering good will. In the Keurig case, it decided that its new 2.0 machines would be incompatible with any single-serving coffee pods it hadn’t licensed. After some negative publicity and scathing user reviews, it turns out that a simple scotch-tape hack will allow third-party capsules to be used in the new machines. Again, who will be harmed? The loyal users who buy the product, didn’t read about the hack, and will be frustrated by the limited choice and cost of “official” capsules. I wonder if hurting their user was what Keurig wanted and when and if considering their users’ needs and wants was put aside.