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DRM Doesn't Have to Suck (Part 1 of 2)


By Mathilde Pignol

As more and more consumers have become aware of digital rights management, they've taken to spitting out the technology's acronym, rather than merely speaking it. Oh, it s that darn DRM again! a consumer will screech, flecks of saliva spewing from his mouth. Stupid DRM won t let me do this! It's a level of venom usually reserved for overzealous traffic cops, or really annoying telemarketers.

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DRM has been around a long time in the form of copy protection for software and games, so why such animosity now? The answer lies in the audience. Copy protection has expanded to content your average consumer cares about: movies and music. But DRM doesn t have to be a swear word. By implementing some clever design choics, content owners can actually turn DRM into an asset, one that gives consumers greater access to digital media.

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Music labels and movie studios currently view DRM as the silver bullet to prevent illegal copying of their products on peer-to-peer file sharing networks. As such, DRM in its current forms is so highly restrictive that it prevents even fair use. Fair use includes right to so-called first sale—that is, the ability to resell content you have purchased. Since DRM schemes are most often tied to the device on which they are used, there is no way to resell that Coldplay album you purchased on the iTunes music store unless you sell your computer along with it (save for giving the buyer access to your iTunes account). It s problematic at best. In the latest blow to fair use, the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) recently decided that ripping your CDs for backup, or even to digitize music for your iPod, infringes on copyright laws.

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Content owners fail to realize that trying to fight P2P file sharing is like trying to fight the rising tide: utterly pointless. They are desperately trying to hang on to outdated business models when the overwhelming popularity of P2P file sharing and the success of MySpace point to new business opportunities.

Consumers want the abundance of content and convenience that P2P networks offer. They are interested in discovering new, smaller artists that appeal to niche markets. Instead of hindering consumers' needs, DRM could help content owners cater to them. This is already happening with subscription services like Yahoo! Music or Napster, which use DRM to lease consumers all the music they want for a monthly fee. The Apple iTunes Music Store offers the twin conveniences of an easy purchase process and of FairPlay, the least restrictive DRM scheme on the market. But there is room for improvement. The subscription services require a shift in how consumers think about their music libraries. And FairPlay, with its limits (you can only burn a playlist to CD up to 7 times, you can t use your music on any portable player other than the iPod, etc.), still feels arbitrary and intransigent.

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Consumers are accustomed to being able to take the CD they bought and play it in their car, in their home stereo, at work, or at a friend s house. And that s what they expect from digital content, too. Why not give them what they want? Promote new TV shows by giving away the pilot unprotected. Make different DRM schemes play nice with each other: if consumers could play the episodes of Lost they purchased on iTunes on their PSP, they would buy more TV shows. Give consumers streaming access to all the music in a catalog without the monthly fee; they will discover more artists and purchase more songs.

Perhaps most importantly of all—and here's where the design aspect starts to come in—content owners need to rethink the the interactions between DRM technology and users. When you run out of allotted minutes on your cellphone, Verizon doesn t just cut you off in the middle of a conversation with a message stating, "You have exceeded your minute-usage limit, please wait until next month." So why are DRM systems being designed to do exactly that, to treat users like either infants or borderline criminals? If DRM let consumers exceed limits when they needed to, the technology would feel more flexible, more like it s on the Average Joe's side. And, as a result, there'd be a lot less rage directed against it.

The bottom line is that consumers will consume more if DRM is done the right way, and everyone will come out a winner. So, how can content owners design better DRM schemes? And who's leading the way? Stay tuned for the next frog Design Mind to find out.

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Mathilde Pignol is a Design Analyst for frog design.