DRM Is Not Evil

At Pan Macmillan we are no great fans of DRM. For a while now we have been selling a limited range of titles DRM free from our website; these are titles where the authors have requested that we retail sans DRM. Many writers are in favour of this, and so we see as it as an important service. Recently we have added the novels of David Hewson to the non DRM stable and they can be found on the website. Lets face it. DRM can be a nightmare - confusing, fiddly, prohibitively sensitive to basic uses of media. A couple of weeks ago I was setting up a friends Sony Reader and forgot quite how dis-orientating an experience setting up an Adobe ID can be. Ok, so most of us used to the web will not struggle. But what about all those other readers who get by without Twitter and Adobe IDs? No doubt, DRM isn't perfect and makes life difficult for people legitimately using files they have paid good money for. Worse, it can lead to those files becoming unusable (a situation which is inexcusable).

However the anti-DRM lobby, as vocal as it is appealing, makes DRM sound like some cultural apocalypse. Culture, the argument goes, thrives on being shared and the modern mass media is a recent aberration that cuts against the grain of creativity and the natural flow of cultural production. Advocates like Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig make a case that is compelling, persuasive and important. Yet in the hands of many acolytes this is converted to a simple outright denunciation of any DRM and the assumption that the presence of DRM provides a moral carte blanche for piracy. Google might not be evil, but DRM sure is.

The whole DRM debate is hardly a new one but it's time someone in publishing said something positive for DRM. Yes, it often sucks, but it's not evil. Why?

Firstly because paper is a form of DRM. If you buy a book you can lend it out to a few of your friends. Can you send it to all of them? No. You are inherently limited in the spread of that book. We don't assume that it would ever be possible to distribute that book to everyone we know, only that we can do with it what we want. This is both sensible and sustainable.

Secondly and more significantly because mass culture relies on a mass business model undermined by piracy. An argument against DRM is that the web will engender a liberation and proliferation of culture free from the corporate bonds currently suffocating it; get rid of the suits and we end up in a grass roots web driven artistic utopia. This might be true. However in this scenario there will be no more Hollywood blockbusters, huge epoch defining albums and tours, door stopping bestsellers and all the other accouterments of mass culture that rely on a company infrastructure.

These require scale, a corporate scale, which requires direct and secure revenue which to date has existed in the form of unit sales. Last.fm, Spotify et al are pointing the way to a fantastic new business model, but alone it is not enough. DRM is one of the only tools available to prevent catastrophic loss of revenue.

My argument here is simple: if we want Harry Potter- the books, films, computer games, the whole phenomenon - then DRM has a role. While some of the web elite could happily do without this kind of mass market stuff, and while I believe the web is important in promoting material antithetical to it, I think most of us would not want to see it go away.

We all know that DRM is far from infallible and can be hacked. DRM is never going to be a final guarantor, rather it is a basic protective mechanism.

So DRM is not great, but neither is it evil. There are a few things that need to be done by publishers and others to ensure though that DRM really isn't evil. People do hate DRM. We have to make this better. My suggestions:

- interoperable DRM is a must. Seriously, until we have decent interoperable DRM then it will always be a huge and unnecessary barrier to adoption of new technologies. Getting this in place should be a priority for everyone in the content industries.

- more flexible DRM. I should be able to lend my file to people - just not torrent it at will.

- more choices and granularity of DRM available. As a publisher we don't always want to slap the heaviest DRM on all our titles. Yet this is what we have to do. Some titles could have lighter- or no- DRM while others have more restrictive controls.

- more social DRM. Watermarking and the like could be very effective, but as far as I am aware this technique is not yet widely used.

- an acknowledgment of the different uses and situations people might find themselves in. This means recognising that an inherent give in the system will make peoples experiences better.

- giving something back. If we are going to use DRM then we have to make sure that what we are offering really is great. This means harnessing digital delivery to add content and experiment with new forms of content to really make the offering attractive.

- be open to new business models. We cannot cling to just DRM; at the same time we should start earnestly evaluating other alternative means of distribution.

This might not make everyone turn round and start liking DRM, but it should make life easier for the most important people of all: our readers.