Jun 26

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

Norwegian Lament

There is a bleekly hilarious story by Network World columnist Mark Gibbs ("Nachruf for DRM") of an encounter with a DRM-protected music site that damn near thwarted his persistent efforts to purchase a long-valued, and only recently-remembered, work of Norwegian music.

As Mark relates:

I remembered the piece a few days ago and e-mailed the Norwegian Society of Composers to see if I could learn more. In 24 hours I got a reply from a very helpful gentlemen named Thorgrim who asked another chap named Torkild who came up not only with the correct name of the piece but also the composer's name, Arne Nordheim, and a Web site where I could purchase it!

The site for acquiring this gem is Norsk Komponist Forening, a showcase for Norwegian music that is varied and prolific. Thus it was that I found there before me, ready to be mine, all seven minutes and 28 seconds of "Nachruf for Strings" for the princely sum of 13.50 Kroner (about $2.24).

From there, the story gets technically ugly, as Mark has to first switch to Internet Explorer to accommodate encrypted WMA files, then encounters minimum purchase requirements, and finally the opaquely rendered necessity of upgrading Windows components. If Mark was not as technically sophisticated, there would be a very upset - and unsuccessful - consumer. Even given his expertise and the intuition borne from a professional IT-related career, the site left a very frustrated consumer.

So, after I luxuriated in the strains of "Nachruf for Strings" what did I do next? I burned a CD and ripped it back to an MP3 so I could play it on my iPod because, guess what? I don't own a device that plays protected WMAs!

[W]hat was my "take away" from this saga? First, the folks at Norsk Komponist Forening, in common with many other Web sites, have next to no idea about the value of a positive customer experience. ...

Second, Microsoft's patching is hardly comprehensive; how could the company omit a patch that renders their DRM unusable?

Third, Microsoft's DRM is incredibly poorly thought out if it can fail like that. Pathetic is the term that comes to mind.

Fourth, we have yet another example of how DRM in general - and for music in particular - doesn't help sell content. If I had been a naive user I would have probably just given up.

This is yet another saga detailing how often DRM only seems to get in the way of the consumer experience. And even as these stories proliferate, and as the RIAA finally seems to be receiving some of its own medicine, publishers are on the verge of falling into technical regimes they claim serve to protect their ability to compensate authors for their intellectual property.

They are wrong. DRM does nothing to protect revenue. As Tim O'Reilly and others observed long ago, permitting a small and probably inevitable measure of piracy, combined with an intelligent marketing and sales design that facilitates content discovery and acquisition and optimizes the consumer experience, can serve to simultaneously mitigate the loss from piracy by honest users and achieve higher revenue.

Do trade publishers need an example? At the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference, I was fortunate to chair an illuminating panel on DRM with speakers from high-value scholarly publishing houses.

Academic journal publishers such as Elsevier rely almost entirely on licensing, or even more informal agreements, with large institutional subscribers such as universities and commercial enterprises, and release their content within those constraints freely. For example, once I have downloaded a PDF version of an Elsevier ScienceDirect article, there is nothing in this world that prevents me from emailing it to a half dozen of my colleagues who might not have access to the same material under license. Yet this kind of loss is actually insignificant to Elsevier. Monitoring their web sites for suspicious repetitive or wide-scale downloads does far more to protect their business than building technically fragile, technology-reliant DRM systems that would only compromise their long-term financial position. And as the product manager of Elsevier's ScienceDirect has observed, mass piracy is self-defeating. What can a large-scale pirate do? The moment they advertise, they are caught. There are fundamental, inherent negative-feedback loops.

I am quite aware that monographs and certainly, of course, reference materials, exist in different use domains than scholarly articles. Nonetheless, the central, and critical point remains: no DRM solution is effective in delivering what any publisher must seek for themselves and their authors: a wider market, and greater revenue; in fact, it is detrimental to that effort.

tags: publishing  | comments: 2   | Sphere It

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Comments: 2

  aram [06.27.07 10:39 AM]

I have a video (Step into Liquid) which came with 2 disks. A regular dvd and one dvd with the movie in HD in some Windows Media format. won't play on mac or linux. Its a couple years old. I tried it out on a friends windows computer after he got a high def tv. No dice. We didn't bother trying to get it to work. Frustrating.

  Greg Stein [06.29.07 09:25 AM]

O'Reilly has a great view on free books and digitization of content, and I've found that Baen Books also "gets it". Read Eric Flint's take on why free books can be good for a publisher.

As a consumer, I can say that his commentary is spot-on. I read a few of the books online and then went on to purchase additional books from the series. I would not have done that without those initial books available for free.

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