Does the world need DRM?

This is a polarizing question, with strong opinions on either side. But what I’d like to do here is look at what DRM is and what its goals are, then work backward and explore whether or not the goals are worthy, and finally, ask if DRM is the best path to realizing those goals.

Simply put, DRM is a technology that allows access to a movie according to the rules that apply to what a consumer has paid for. For example, if a consumer rents a movie for a 48 hour period, then just as in the days of the video rental store, DRM assures that the consumer can watch the movie according to those rules. Similarly, if a consumer buys a movie, DRM assures that the consumer can watch that movie on all the devices he or she owns, and so on.

Therefore, the goal of DRM is to provide a content protection framework into which content owners can publish their content in a manner that allows playback according to the offer that a consumer pays for. The idea of paying for what you get, and getting what you pay for is long entrenched in the minds of consumers and of content owners alike. For example, if a consumer buys a ticket to a theatrical showing of a movie, that doesn’t mean they get a DVD, unless that’s the offer (i.e., watch the movie and take home a “free” DVD). Similarly, if a consumer goes to a video rental store and rents something, they get a copy of the movie for some prescribed period of time. If they keep the disc beyond that time, they pay more. Now we have the Internet, which is changing the landscape, and DRM is there to provide content owners with a rich set of tools by which they can not only offer the purchase and rental options that consumers are used to, they can also innovate and offer compelling new experiences not previously possible.

Now we ask the question: Is DRM the best way for content owners to innovate in the area of content publication and distribution? Obviously, the only alternative to DRM is no content protection, so let’s ask ourselves if movie publication and distribution without any content protection is a way that the business of making movies can be sustained. To answer this question, consider the history of the music recording business, where digital publication of music never really had any form of content protection at all. It is already well documented that the mass market as a whole, and even well meaning individual consumers, do not always pay for what they get when it comes to music. This despite the fact that such consumers are acquiring and listening to as much music as in the pre-digital age. What we know is that the convenience of copying and distributing music to friends and neighbors is far too simple to support the traditional music business, and the music industry continues to struggle to find new ways of funding themselves. With this history lesson in mind and looking at what’s happening today, it’s hard to say that consumers are behaving any differently with movies, now that copying and distributing movies over the Internet is both convenient and common.

While opinions will always vary, I think it’s easy to conclude that some form of content protection is critically important in this new era of Internet experimentation. This is the purpose and the motivation for the creation and adoption of DRM technologies. In short, DRM is enabling innovation in the content distribution space, especially as it relates to the growing area of Internet distribution. DRM is not only necessary, it is adding value to consumers’ lives by supporting new and compelling content offers that were previously not available.