DRM isn’t a new term, but it sure has been gaining popularity as of late. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management and to put it simply, it is the tool that manages how an end user accesses digital content. DRM takes on many different forms; from encryption, to license checks over the internet, to limiting the number of installations. When a user encrypts their data, they are employing a form of digital rights management (something you should be happy you are able to do!). An encrypted DVD is using DRM to prevent illegal copies from being made without permission. Or a video game technology with empty blocks used to prevent duplication.
DRM usually has a bad reputation, and to be honest, it’s earned it fair and square. Seasons of DRM content becoming unavailable due to a management server being shut down, or rootkits employed on CDs to prevent distribution have plagued users since the inception of DRM. And DRM is in a constant struggle over controlling digital media that is quite easy to copy and distribute (commonly called “pirating” media). There is a very real tension between trying to make content easy to access, but not too easy.
Book publishers are in the midst of learning how to distribute digital media right now. Amazon has a pretty heavy-handed DRM approach to books, but users don’t have a problem with it at all. Why? The make it incredibly easy to access their content. Most of the devices they sell to use the content (like the Kindle) can get it anywhere they have a 3G connection. Amazon is also a huge company with arguably some of the best servers in the world.
Music has had a rougher go of it. During the time span between 2006 and 2008 several major music distribution services shut down servers that allowed users to listen to the music they bought. Not being able to access music that users paid for was, to say the least, frustrating to honest consumers. The growing pains of DRM has caused many people to be bitter about the whole process.
Movies have yet to settle on a good method, although some are trying to make access easy and long-term. Services like UtlraViolet, Amazon, Google Play and Apple iTunes allow access to movies and TV, albeit heavily tied to DRM.
Some services offer DRM free content. For video games, places like GOG.com and HumbleBundle.com offer indie and classic games free of DRM. Music is now available from iTunes, Amazon, Google and others in a DRM free format. Movies have yet to offer such a service for any sort of major picture.
Sometimes DRM is annoying, but you honestly have to admit that at times it is necessary. It takes millions of dollars to make a movie today. Video games run into the same problem. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 cost about $50 million to make and about $200 million to distribute and market. It’s understandable that companies want to maximise their returns on such huge investments.
Enter the current debate about the early stages of the console war. In the last few weeks many people have been talking about DRM practices in the video game world. Sony touted their “no DRM policy” at E3 2013 to cheers from the audience. At the time of writing this they claim to have no DRM on the console. Really? I’m pretty sure that’s not true. What about digital downloads? Surely there is something in place there to prevent a person from copying the download to a USB device and taking it to a friends house? Microsoft is getting a lot of heat right now for having DRM on their console. But the reality is, all next-gen consoles are using some form of DRM. So the real question is, who is doing it better? DRM has to find the balance between being easy for the user to access and use and protecting the copyrighted content of the creator. Music found the sweet spot with offering discounts when buying digital and being in a more affordable creation space. Selling for less than $10 and running in the thousands of dollars to produce means they have to potential to recoup costs much quicker than a film or video game. And Amazon makes gettings books easy wherever you have internet access.
Only time will really tell, but I think Microsoft has the edge here with the Xbox One. Yes, DRM is managing the new all digital library, but in new cool ways. The ability to share digitally downloaded games (and disc based games) with up to 10 family members no matter where they are is an example of offering more with the implementation of DRM. As I said before, DRM is about striking a balance between convenience and protection. If Microsoft can hit that sweet spot for gamers, developers and publishers while making the games competitively priced, easy to access and has good value added, the Xbox One has a huge potential to change DRM practices in the video game world for the better.
As a gamer, I’m excited to see how it all works out.