April 20, 2009 | By Hugh D'Andrade

Doctorow's Law: Who Benefits from DRM?

In a reprise of his famous argument against DRM delivered to Microsoft executives in 2004, Cory Doctorow recently appeared before book publishers at the O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference to explain to leaders of the publishing industry why DRM on digital books is bad for customers, bad for authors, and bad for business.

Cory reminded his audience of something they have probably already heard from their own customers: no one likes DRM.

No one woke up this morning and thought, "gee, I wish there was a way I could do less with my music, maybe someone's offering that product today."

And customers especially don't like it when they wake up one day and find that their legally purchased products will no longer read — as Fictionwise customers discovered when DRM provider Overdrive ended its licensing deal with Fictionwise:

The lesson was pretty clear to people who went out and bought books: if you buy books, prepare to have them taken from you without compensation... But if you steal your eBooks you can keep them forever! This is not a message you want to be sending to your customers.

But the message the publishers really needed to hear was one Cory delivered loud and clear: DRM is not about stopping piracy, it's about locking customers and businesses into a proprietary platform.

Imagine if, in addition to having control over what inventory they carry, [the big box stores] also carried your books in such a way that they could only be shelved on WalMart shelves, they could only be read in WalMart lamps, running WalMart light bulbs. Imagine the lock-in to your customers and the lack of control over your destiny that you have signed up with if this is the path you pursue. Well this is in fact what you get when you sell DRM'd eBooks or DRM'd music — in order to play back that DRM format, in order carry, manipulate or convert that DRM format, you have to license the DRM. The company that controls licensing for the DRM controls your business to the extent that your business is reliant on this.

The music industry has already gone down this (walled) garden path, and discovered too late that DRM did nothing to stop or even slow piracy — but it did manage to alienate customers and give Apple an enormous amount of leverage over their businesses. It's not too late for the publishing industry to avoid this deadly mistake, so long as they remember what has been dubbed Doctorow's Law:

Anytime someone puts a lock on something you own, against your wishes, and doesn't give you the key, they're not doing it for your benefit.


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