A Brief History of DRM

Digital Rights Management (called “DRM” by most) is a MASSIVE topic that has been covered extensively by a wealth of qualified journalists and researchers. The DRM Wikipedia page is an exhaustive primer, replete with no less than 169 references. Everyone with a stake in art, from authors to publishers to consumers, is affected by DRM-related policies.

This post is intended to provide a lightning-quick refresher about the relationship between DRM and trade publishers before I discuss Angry Robot’s stance on DRM.

DRM is defined as any technology that is created “with the intent to control the use of digital content and devices after sale” (Wikipedia). Media theorist Steven Berlin Johnson described such technologies as a “glass box” that intentionally limit the interactivity (and, ultimately, the value) of digital media. Most specifically, contemporary DRM measures “seek to control viewing, copying, printing, and altering of works or devices” (Wikipedia). In essence, they determine HOW you can consume a certain piece of work.

Why do content providers gravitate towards such restrictive measures? Most see it as a necessary part of doing digital business. Executives have claimed that these “technologies are important for preventing piracy and illegitimate use of artists’ work.” In an era where the acquisition of pirated content is free, easy, and ubiquitous, locking content might appear to be the only countermeasure.

Opponents argue that the price of the glass box is just too damn high. The anti-DRM website Defective by Design claims that these technologies are “a threat to innovation in media, the privacy of readers, and freedom for computer users.” Similar sentiments have gained a lot of traction in the past decade, with such notable figures as Cory Doctorow, John Walker, and Richard Stallman publicly denouncing the technologies. The most important opponent of DRM, however, has been the consumers themselves.

Despite this fervent outcry, DRM has become the standard for distributed digital content. Almost all of the major e-book providers have some form of encryption on their e-books, technologies used to “limit copying, printing, and sharing of e-books” (Wikipedia). In some cases (most notably with the Amazon Kindle), the DRM is used to limit the number of devices that can access that book (Kindle books can ONLY be read on a Kindle device).

E-book DRM has elicited a strong reaction in particular because many believe that the restrictions go against the very nature of literature. “This malicious device [is] designed to attack the traditional freedoms of readers” claims Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation. Even publishers aren’t afraid to publicly speak out against these policies and even condone illegal DRM-breaking activities.

Many publishers even express their stance on the issue by offering DRM-free e-books. Defective by Design lists a surprising number of publishers who sell or provide DRM-free digital texts. There are 88 in all, but it’s unsurprising that many of them are either very small presses or work with books in the public domain. However, there are some notable publishers on that list. The ever-growing self-publishing platform Smashwords allows its writers to sell their works DRM-free. The influential STM publisher O’Reilly was an early adopter of the anti-DRM stance, and Image Comics very publicly prides itself on being the only anti-DRM comics publisher.

Some of the largest publishers to go DRM-free have been genre fiction publishers. Two of the largest sellers of science fiction and fantasy novels, Tor and Baen, sell their e-books free of DRM. Tor claims that this move hasn’t impacted their sales at all, and credits the tech-savy nature of genre readers with the popularity of the anti-DRM stance within that community. I personally believe that the proliferation of totalitarian regimes and oppressive dystopias within genre fiction has made those readers particularly inclined to reject DRM.

As previously stated, Angry Robot has firmly aligned itself with the anti-DRM crowd. Why AR chose to follow in the footsteps of its genre peers rather than the money-making titans at Amazon or Apple will be the subject of my next post.

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2 Responses to A Brief History of DRM

  1. Pingback: Why Angry Robot Doesn’t Play the DRM Game | The Robot Watcher

  2. Pingback: FINAL POST: The Once and Future Robot | The Robot Watcher

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