ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Bring on the Pain #2: The DRM in Conundrum —

So another commenter asked me about what I would do about DRM associated with digital distribution, considering my pretty strong beliefs on it. Well, it gets complicated and weird, but I hope I can justify myself or at least make sense.

The comment asks me if I’m talking about distributing through PBS or did I mean broadcasting. I mean broadcasting. Sorry for being misleading. That’s what I mean when I talk about video or cable channels; where they show people the movie and the word gets around about it. And as I discussed previously, cable channels are stellar at putting hard work up at popular times like 8:30am and then saying “gee, we didn’t get the numbers”. But let’s keep our hearts and minds open!

My position on DRM is actually similar to Linus Torvalds’, which is not compatible with Richard Stallman’s, and somewhat perpendicular to some other “copyfighters”. I have no problem with the idea of DRM per se, any more than I have issues with locks or controls in general. The idea of DRM, you see, is a pretty good one, even if it’s pretty pie in the sky. DRM is a core tenet of video games, of books, of a lot of creations, and the issue comes down to the methodology that the DRM is implemented by.

It is very difficult to pirate a gondola ride in Venice. It requires Venice, a Gondola, and a Gondola operator. Most of us who might want a gondola ride in Venice in our homes would be pretty tasked to do so; although, and I do contest this, it is possible – import lots of things from Venice (or stuff that looks like it), build a canal, fly in a Gondola operator, or an actor who could pilot a Gondola. This is, in fact, what the Las Vegas casino The Venetian did. Now, someone who has been to Venice might find that the Venetian’s gondola experience is lacking, but that’s kind of the nature of copies, isn’t it – they often lack some aspect of the original, and the consumer has to ask themselves if they are not getting their money’s worth. Certainly if it costs more to be at the Venetian than Venice, then yeah, you’re probably cheating yourself out. But for a lot of people, The Venetian will do. Look, I warned you about “complicated and weird”.

Venice’s location, brand name, and tradition of both Gondola building and operation are their DRM; very difficult to duplicate, leaving you with a shadow of the original. The intricate components, and interlocking of them, compose the “lock” that prevents easy duplication.

Compare this with making a paper airplane. You can go right here and make a paper airplane easily, anywhere in the world. You can even avoid using Ben’s excellent instructions and make one on your own without consulting him. You need a piece of paper and air. the DRM on paper airplanes is weak – the instructions are so simple, the process so complete, that you need not think about the issue of copying – it very nearly copies itself (a kid sees a paper airplane being folded and can do it themselves).

Now, there is a very possible chance that a percentage of people totally on the fence about Venice vs. Venetian will choose Venetian over Venice, screwing over potential dollars for Venice. And should Sony produce a Paper Airplane movie and sell paper airplanes, people will make their own paper airplanes, and some might even draw a Sony logo or design on it. If the paper airplane/gondola crazes increase to a sufficient amount, some internal barrier will be breached and someone, somewhere, the kind of person who drinks themselves to sleep or who thinks MTV invented the music video will go “Now wait a minute, this is devastating to our business.” And then a Very Stupid Thing will happen.

In this event, the DRM was sufficient until the time it became insufficient, a time that was rare and a very special set of circumstances. The DRM does not preclude people making additional Vencii or Paper Airplanes, but given enough money showing up, some fuck will make it a problem. Follow?

Let’s bring this back to stuff you’re probably more comfortable with.

Everyone’s done Music, Movies and Books to death. Let’s go with Broadway Shows.

Broadway shows come in two forms currently, three if you’re feeling generous: Broadway, Touring Production and Las Vegas. In all three cases, to experience it properly, you need to go to a location, either a few blocks near Times Square in New York City, to a local large theater during a two or three week period, or to Las Vegas. The limitations here are specific: geography and time. You need to be in a place at the right time. In that place, a lot of money is spent to give you a full cast, a full crew, and they will put on a show for you.

Analogues exist outside of these venues – you can buy the soundtrack of the performance, but obviously you don’t tend to get the complete show, with songs and pieces cut out, and you definitely don’t get either the visuals or the visceral experience of being at a live performance. For some people, this is sufficient regardless. For others it is not.

It is also possible to see Broadway productions in other venues. These are usually not put on until a significant length or end of a current Broadway production. The productions pay a fee, either a royalty or flat, to put on the production. People who go to these are generally not going to get a Broadway Production either. But they’ll get an analogue. And they’re happy with that.

So here the DRM, the management of the material, is being contained along several vectors, and are dependent on technology not increasing on cell phones or other recording devices to bring more of the experience into a duplicate-friendly format. Once it does, well, then we’re going to have a problem. Or, I should say, Broadway Shows will have a problem and they will start making it a problem for others as well.

As I referenced, other media, specifically pre-recorded, easy-to-duplicate media, already are swimming in this soup. This is partially their own fault, because they started banking heavily on these easily-duplicated units (CDs, records, tapes, videotapes, DVDs, books) without spending too much time building up other potential sources of revenue as much as they might have, as insurance. Broadway shows are going to experience this down the line, and are starting to: take, for example, Phantom of the Opera, which has transcended traditional Broadway Experience and is now a full-on franchise, with massive variations of media and locations to protect or at least defend. It’s how things will likely go, since the money is just too good.

Take a deep breath.

(By the way, if you’ve ever had dinner with me, this is exactly how I talk about things. Just ask around.)

The BBS Documentary, as a product, is easily duplicated. It’s either three ISOs (about 18gb) or, if you are happy with just the MPEGs themselves, less than 3gb of files. That’s not a lot anymore; less than it was when it came out and less every day. Downloading a game demo is sometimes one or two gigabytes now. The actual unit of sale is either an ISO or a .MPG (or .AVI or so on). Each copy is not hand crafted, each creation is not wistfully maneuvered into place by me wearing a jewelers’ monocle readying it for a diamond-encrusted setting. It’s a box with plastic in it, or it’s a couple files. It takes me a little time to pack up the items in a box, but that’s it for per-unit work. To act otherwise is to be really naive.

My DRM, then, is pretty miniscule. You need to either get a piece of plastic from me, or you need to go to a couple hundred easy locations on the Internet and download what version of my work you want. One way pays me and one doesn’t. Either way you see my movie and that is awesome. If I act like someone who sees it the other 99 ways is stealing from me, I end up with cancer of the rage, and that shit doesn’t go away.

I never want the access I granted to people, and how I distributed it, and how the product is available, to go away. That’s a precursor to any sales. I will not grant any place an exclusive right to sale. I suspect this will cut me out of a number of locations, just on the terms of their K-Razy Terms Of Service. I haven’t checked. I will.

If the place does not have that limit, and I sell them distribution rights (or, if you prefer to think of it, I license the right to distribute to the place), then they are going to do what they do. They are probably going to slap DRM on it, and they’re going to make all sorts of nutty garbage on it, and they’re going to do this as part of how they work. To this end, my own personal beliefs will kick in and I will therefore say the following falls under “pisses me off”:

  • Combining it with advertising. I’m still of the school that being paired with an advertiser endorses that advertiser’s product. Therefore if my movie begins with an ad for Salsa-Flavored Rape Chips, you would be entitled to think that I probably have a few bags of Salsa-Flavored Rape Chips and/or think the smoky taste combo of Pepper Jack Cheese and Rape is a worthwhile product.
  • Breaking it up with other crap. This falls under splitting up the works into even more parts, or making you see part of it and then pay for more, or making you pay for an improved version instead of crappy initial version.
  • Making me get less than 40 percent of the cover price. I hate that. For one main reason: people think I’m making more than I really am. Amazon takes 55 percent of my cover charge for my DVDs, and I consider that pushing it. Less than that and people are paying and I’m getting a few bucks.
  • Weird demands that will turn off my technical audience, like limiting to a platform unnecessarily or insisting on software installations. Exception: iTunes.

Other than that, fine.

So, iTunes. Here’s the thing about iTunes: It is a resource-hogging, closed-down locked piece of shit. But people love it! They love having a little machine that can play these little locked down files they pay for. The machine will play open-formatted files and you don’t have to buy anything to make it work, so it is very hard for me to say no to it. So I am all for iTunes, as long as they don’t demand exclusive selling rights, and as long as what people get is an episode of my movie without unwanted “extras”. That’s how it fits in my moral structure and feelings on DRM.

Steam is similar – you pay for stuff and then it comes to you in locked down form. People, again, seem to be fine with this. If Steam allows you to download the movie and watch it, and doesn’t break it up with ads or other modifications, fine. Good.

Netflix streaming. Xbox Live. All good. Any and all. Keep to those rules and we’ll be fine. Gondolas for all.

But I agree that there’s a great chance a lot of this is going to run up against someone in there, someone who sees free gondolas and broadway shows going out the door and will want to lock them down. At that point I will walk away and let you know I did.

And that is what I think.

Honestly, I usually pay for dinner for listening to these rants.

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