At the end of the day, what do you own?

As digital media expands and becomes more ubiquitous in the market, consumers are faced with an interesting question they’ve never had to answer.

What do you own?

This question is getting more important with every transaction made by a consumer.  Readers find themselves purchasing e-books rather than physical books, gamers buy their games without buying CDs increasingly and who doesn’t purchase music as MP3s rather than on albums?  All of these products, unlike traditional goods, have no physical existence and are easy to copy.  In order to combat this, many content providers are exploring different schemes of protecting their content from being copied.  These protections schemes are referred to as Digital Rights Management (or DRM).  Unfortunately, more often than not, these DRM schemes tend to require users to bend over backwards just to abide by them.  This puts two forces against each other and hurts everyone involved.  On one side, there are users who are willing to pay money for products but unwilling to break their back just to own a product.  On the other hand, producers are willing to provide high-quality products, but fear making piracy too easy.  While the conflict is still evolving, there are some isolated instances of DRM schemes and users getting along.

One solution is not to have any DRM at all.  Amazon provides, via their MP3 store, DRM-free music files for the most part.  With the exception of a few publishers who insist on using DRM, Amazon has made DRM-free files their standard.  On top of that, any files you buy from them, you can listen to on their MP3 player online and re-download at your convenience.  The only catch is that you have to register your computer in order to download the files.  You can have up to 3 computers registered at a time and it is possible to unregister.  This allows Amazon to attract users who want the assurance that their files will always be available.  By making their products readily available and giving their users a guarantee of ownership, Amazon is able to keep their sales up and discourage piracy.  Additionally, Amazon offers sales on albums to encourage listeners to buy albums rather than illegally downloading them.

Of course, not using DRM is not an option for everyone.  Games are commonly protected by DRM.  For a long time, games were protected in that one had to own a disc to play a game.  Nowadays, with distribution companies cutting physical discs to increase profitability, new schemes have been developed.  Many of these can be quite draconian in nature.  An upcoming scheme which is surrounded in controversy is EA’s new Sim City.  The game will require an internet connection full time to play.  Most of these DRM schemes come under heavy fire because they have done little to stop pirates from copying the software while seriously detracting from the game play experience for legitimate users.  Another large issue with these schemes is that some only allow for a one-time download and install.  This can be particularly troubling when someone wants to own a copy of a game for a long period of time.

One company that’s been doing a good job of DRM has been Valve, with their gaming platform Steam for Mac and PC.  Steam is essentially just a license manager.  It allows users to download, install and keep up to date all of their games on as many computers as they’d like.  The only catch is that you can only be playing on your account on one computer at a time, a completely reasonable request.  It supports an offline mode to play games and only requires an internet connection to purchase and install games.  Finally, Steam offers two huge sales on games every year, maintaining a positive relationship with their users.

From these two successful examples, it’s easy to see that the content-distribution system of the future will need to allow users access to their purchases multiple times.  Additionally, it is important to invade users’ lives as little as possible.  Finally, these examples show that any inconvenience should be compensated for in the form of sales.  This will also attract users and encourage people to legitimately download content rather than pirate it.

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