DRM hurts the wrong people. Let’s fix it.

Spore DRM War
Click image to enlarge for readability…

We’ve heard this time and time again, but when will publishers and producers learn?

Don’t ever let fans who buy legally get more hurt, than those who don’t.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) only serves to incentivize piracy, unless it is brought a reasonable point of convenience for the user.

The most recent case involved the long awaited video game by creator Will Wright, called Spore. Thanks to the protectionism of game publisher Electronic Arts (EA), The Register reported that “Spore’s DRM limits customers to only three activations after the game is installed. That number isn’t restored even if the game is uninstalled. Three is what you get unless you call up Electronic Arts customer support and give them your sob story.”

Fans of Spore are expectantly unhappy.

In online communes such as Amazon.com, upset fans have collectively given EA’s Spore an extremely low product rating of between 1 to 2 stars, due to this anti-feature. Interestingly, another camp of Will Wright supporters have started fighting back by saying “rate the game, not the DRM”, then rating it five stars. As Fred Benenson explains, “[t]he moment concentrated actions like protests lead to dis-organized collective action and rebellion en masse is very exciting”. This is the smartmob in action.

That’s a shame for the state of DRM.

DRM, while designed to limit infringing actions of users, suffers from a larger socio-structural vulnerability: The Smart Cow Problem. As stated by Seth Schoen from the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), “[i]t only takes one smart cow to open the latch of the gate, and then all the other cows follow.” Due to the viral aspect of the Internet, it only takes one individual’s defeat of a DRM scheme to render the method obsolete.

True to nature, Spore had already been leaked, then cracked and torrented just four days before the game even came out in North America. As of publishing, one particular torrent variant has already been downloaded by about 27,000 users via PirateBay.

So how can DRM be fixed?

While piracy affects the entire media industry, cases like these serve to polarize the means of ownership even more severely. However, as hinted earlier, the only time I’ve seen DRM viable is when it gives enough incentive back to the end-user. This includes the ease of downloading from legal sources over illegal ones, as well as giving more liberties to the paying crowd, such as increasing the limits of installs and offering of free easy-to-install updates.

Apple’s iTunes makes this point a reality, by making it “one-click” to purchase music easily (torrenting involves more work), allowing users more freedom in media playback (sometimes even offering DRM-free albums, or letting users workaround DRM by burning music CDs), and offering completeness and longevity such as proper music meta-data, album art, free update for iPhone apps, etc (where illegal downloads require more work).

Perhaps to take this point even further, DRM designers could do better by developing reputation systems among legitimate users in order to grant greater liberties as rewards for responsible use. In the iTunes scenario, a simple quantifier could be to track the number of music purchases in one’s entire collection. If it’s of a certain percentage, perhaps Apple could improve the owner’s investment by increasing the limits of computers and iPods able to playback the media, or to simply offer access to DRM-free versions of the songs since the user might be deemed as trustworthy. While privacy issues would be of concern, this could be an opt-in opportunity should the reward mechanisms be made attractive enough.

What do you think?
I’m all for a DRM-free future, but I wouldn’t mind it as much if both producers and users are able to balance our collective needs. I want to play fair, but I just don’t wish to be jibbed in the process.

BTW: While I dropped the torrent link above, you can purchase to download Spore legally here. That’s one instance of convenience publishers actually got right.

UPDATE: TorrentFreak, a blog covering the bittorrent and p2p scne, reports that Spore has become the “Most Pirated Game Ever Thanks to DRM“. TechCrunch writer, Erick Schonfeld, adds that Electronic Arts missed out on the online components of Spore, which could have served as a more reasonable authentication system than the clandestine DRM approach.

UPDATE 2: Kotaku’s Brian Crecentre interviewed Valve’s Doug Lombardi yesterday to ask how they’ve managed to smooth out the wrinkles of DRM with Steam and how their copy protection compares to Spore’s.

8 thoughts on “DRM hurts the wrong people. Let’s fix it.

  1. Most of us hate DRM because we love freedom. But I’m guessing that with Spore it’s quite the opposite. People might write bad comments on Amazon, but I doubt it will affect sales much. People will give up freedom for something they want. I think Spore is good enough a product for people to put up with the pain.

    Benjamin Koes last blog post..You don’t have to wait for the PR invite

  2. It’s the same as the incident with Mass Effect PC. Players are also limited to 3 installs by…again, EA. Putting copy protection mechanisms in place is NOT the problem. What I take issue with is the way they are implemented without any fore-thought. It’s just simply slipshod solutions in an effort to stem the tide of piracy. And the thing is they CAN be done much better. As one article I’ve read mentions, Steam is one very good example of a legal purchase system which is quick and painless, one that ensures that their games are being legally obtained without any problems to consumer and publisher. I’ve personally used Steam before and I must say it’s quite a smooth experience. You pay for your game and then you download it immediately to your system. Steam even installs the game for you after download. Now, if EA will just learn from Valve and Vivendi…

  3. Benjamin: It’s true that fans are willing to go the distance with Spore’s DRM, but I think we could soothe both producers and end-users if better architectures of control were developed. Either more flexible DRM, or something else altogether. The status quo just isn’t good enough, we’ve seen protests of this nature happen too often.

    Wai Hoe: EA seems to deploy SecurROM for most of their key PC titles, from Bioshock, The Sims, Mass Effect and Spore. SecuROM controversies have even warranted its own Wikipedia entry. Valve’s Steam online system is an excellent, positive example: Valve sometimes reward users with free titles, and like Xbox Live, being legit gives you access to their wonderful online community, for product updates, add-ons and multiplayer sessions. This online model works better than the DRM roadblock.

  4. “If it’s of a certain percentage, perhaps Apple could improve the owner’s investment by increasing the limits of computers and iPods able to playback the media, or to simply offer access to DRM-free versions of the songs since the user might be deemed as trustworthy”

    What about those who rip from CDs or purchase tracks from other online retailers?

    Agagoogas last blog post..

  5. Have you ever listened to Leo Laporte? He’s a radio show host in southern california but now has net podasts. I recommend googling him and listening. He’s always ranting that DRM just hurts the little guy while the pirates easily find a workaround. I personally think it ’causes costly help desk hours for the technicians that have to deal with callers that complain that can’t listen to their music or must help people migrate stuff from one machine to another. It has no value IMHO.

    duis last blog post..Forgot Miranda Rights

  6. I believed you should read the follow-up to that Spore DRM controversy here. They did some tests on proofing the hardiness of the DRM in question.

    I’m not entitled to an opinion (because I’ve no interest in playing Spore), but a summary of it will be: “Complete freedom or partial freedom? Your choice.”

Comments are closed.