Ars Technica Reports That the Recording Industry Dropped DRM – That’s Not True
Have you seen the article that Cyrus Farivar wrote for Ars Technica on Monday? He takes a look at why the publishing industry has not yet followed in the footsteps of the recording industry in dropping DRM.
And that leaves this question: where’s the DRM outrage over e-books? Or put another way, why doesn’t Amazon care about eliminating DRM for books, when it did for music?
This article is getting passed around a lot in digital publishing circles, and before you get to pondering it I want to add something. This article has a significant flaw in its basic assumptions.
Cyrus assumes that the lack of visible DRM is proof that the MP3 files have no DRM, and that is not necessarily true. The author completely fails to consider the possibility of digital watermarks, and in fact he doesn’t even mention them in the article.
This is a serious oversight, because while digital watermarks might not be as much of a nuisance as the more onerous types of DRM, they are still DRM.
I’ve covered digital watermarks before in relation to ebooks (), so I will just briefly touch on it again. Digital watermarking takes a different approach to securing the content than other types of DRM (like Kindle DRM, which I’m sure you know restricts what you can do with a file).
Rather than controlling what the customer does, a digital watermark is a few small bits of data which a retailer adds to a file when it is downloaded by the customer. That data can be used to identify the customer (or at least the account and retailer where it was purchased) if the file ever shows up on a pirate site.
I don’t have info for the entire mp3 market, but at least some retailers use this type of DRM.
I know that Amazon uses digital watermarks on at least some mp3 (proof), and Apple has been widely reported as using watermarks on the mp3 they sell. Google even mentions watermarks in music files in the the Google Play TOS (see section 7).
It’s very likely that these are not the only retailers which use watermarks on the music they sell, and that means that the major record labels have not actually stopped using DRM.
Now, you could argue that watermarks are not DRM, though I would disagree. But at the very least I think it is obvious that the claim that mp3 files lack DRM requires a huge asterisk.
That being said, I have to agree with Cyrus. I too wish more publishers would go for a less restrictive form of DRM. Of course, one other point which Cyrus missed was that some publishers already have moved to using watermarks.
I’m sure you are familiar with Pottermore. This wizarding community also has an ebookstore which is known to use digital watermarks. That service is provided by Booxtream, a Dutch company which also quietly provides similar services to other ebookstores, including the white-label ebookstore platform txtr.
And then there are the publishers and distributors who have gone truly DRM free. Baen Books, Smashwords, and O’Reilly don’t use any type of watermark which I have been able to identify (I took Epubs apart and checked).
So you see, this topic is not nearly as black and white as it looks at first glance. MP3 is not entirely DRM-free, and not all ebooks have DRM. But even after correcting the facts, I still share the desire that publishers do away with DRM. Unfortunately, we are probably never going to see it.
Back in late 2009. the major US publishers had an iTunes moment. The Kindle Store was dominating the ebook market, so much so that publishers were afraid that Amazon would start dictating terms.
I’m sure you know how the publishers responded. Rather than getting behind a DRM-free competitor, 5 publishers conspired with Apple to bring about the Agency Pricing. And we know how that ended.
If Apple had not been talking to publishers in 2009, I seriously think they would have gotten behind B&N and gone for a DRM-free approach. And who knows what would have happened as a result. I personally think Amazon would come out ahead; they have the best ebook platform. But I’m not so sure they would maintain market dominance. I think niche ebookstores would have a better shot at dominating particular categories.
Of course, if that happened then Amazon would probably start buying up the better niche ebookstores just like they buy niche retailers. But that’s another post.
image by jblyberg