When DRM Goes Bad
I read with some interest about the debacle of Amazon’s “total recall” of 1984 (and other books) yesterday. Kindle owners found some e-books they had downloaded and paid for had mysteriously disappeared from their readers (and that they had been reimbursed). Amazon apparently tried to explain away this digital goods heist by insisting that the material had been sold under false pretenses and that when the real rights-holder had complained they chose to pull the content. Now – I am not a Kindle user but I am an AppleTV user and I have to say I found something quite familiar about the whole Kindle thing. Movies and television shows regularly disappear from Apple’s iTunes catalog (and thus from the content available through AppleTV) due to rights negotiations issues. If a movie is due to be shown on television, for example, the rights holder can have that title yanked from the online catalog. This is a power that rights holders have never before wielded. Movie studios certainly couldn’t go around to every video rental store and pull the title. The prospect of publishers storming into your house and removing books from your shelves sounds like a scene out of Fahrenheit 451. But in the era of closed DRM-enabled systems they suddenly have this power, and it is a power rights holders are increasingly choosing to exert. Now, I haven’t had content yanked off my AppleTV yet, but I could imagine it happening, especially now that Amazon has shown the way. Remember, we are talking about marketing executives here. Do you really want your reading, viewing and listening choices within your own library to be at the whim of marketing executives? Big Brother had nothing on these guys.
The fact that Amazon has recanted and said “sorry, we’ll never do it again” is kind of beside the point. They have taught people the object lesson that this is possible. The goods they thought they were buying are in fact a license, and that license can be revoked at any time. If the Bittorrent era has taught us anything it is that consumers, when faced with untenable choices, will take the power into their own hands and circumvent these barriers put in place to stop them. Likewise, when given a fair shake, consumers will gladly pay for digital content. The general industry trend is towards openness, but it strikes me that we need a new consumer compact around expectation of digital goods – one that swings the pendulum back in the consumers’ favor. Otherwise the absolute power of the rights holders will continue to corrupt them, absolutely.