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Hated and Broken

Everyone hates DRM. But not everyone is prepared to admit that it doesn't work.

John Riccitiello hates DRM. That's the rather surprising pronouncement from the Electronic Arts CEO this week - surprising not because there's anything particularly likeable about DRM, but because of his own firm's immense attachment to the widely disliked (and utterly useless) technology.

Admittedly, Riccitiello's comments go a lot deeper than that convenient headline. Despite the fact that he "hates" DRM, he goes on to attempt to justify it - comparing it with locks on your door or other necessary evils which we all require for security.

The comparison is utterly flawed. Locks and keys are indeed a trade-off which we make between convenience and security, but they are designed to protect our own security - not that of the company that sold us the door. There is a real, tangible advantage to the person being inconvenienced. That doesn't exist with DRM.

In fact, DRM is even worse. Not only is there no advantage to the end-user - in exchange for what can be pretty shocking inconvenience, which even Riccitiello confesses is "cumbersome". There's also no real advantage to the company responsible for inflicting this inconvenience, because contrary to Riccitiello's assertion, the DRM solutions used by the industry at large don't actually provide any meaningful protection from piracy.

The proof? Well, you can take the various charts and graphs presented by the companies trying to sell you DRM with which to lock up your products - almost none of whom even claim to be able to protect you past the first few days on sale, and frankly, even those claims are rather spurious. On the other side of the balance, you can put the fact that the Bittorrent "swarms" for Spore, EA's most recent and most controversial DRM-locked product, were among the biggest ever seen for a new videogame.

This alone makes another of Riccitiello's assertions look a little peculiar. He reckons that of those who kicked up a storm about Spore's DRM - which spilled from negative Amazon reviews into the specialist press, and even into the mainstream media in a small way - "about half" were pirates.

Why, exactly, would pirates care about Spore's DRM? If your intention was to pirate the game, there was a perfectly functional copy, totally unencumbered by DRM, sitting up there for you on Bittorrent - for free - on the day of launch. No pirate, with the possible exception of the person who originally uploaded the game to the Internet, ever saw Spore's DRM.

This is the essential, deeply uncomfortable truth about DRM which I and many, many other commentators have been banging on about for years. No pirate on the planet gives a damn about it, because they're happily using an unencumbered copy. The only people who ever see DRM - the only people who ever suffer the "cumbersome" inconvenience of these deeply flawed technologies - are your legitimate, paying, long-suffering customers.

Of course, it's not like the videogames industry stands alone in making this mistake. The film industry has spent years putting unskippable ads on the front of its DVDs, forcing legitimate, paying customers to endure lengthy, over-wrought messages about the evils of piracy. Had they downloaded the film from the Internet or picked up a pirate DVD, of course, they wouldn't have to put up with such nonsense. The irony is harsh, and continues to fly completely over the heads of whatever clueless individuals demand the inclusion of these ridiculous ads.

The music business, too, has made a similar error. You may recall that Sony and other companies spent ages experimenting with ways to prevent CDs from being copied onto computers - completely ignoring the fact that most people had upgraded their portable CD players to MP3 players. Those who legitimately bought music were being punished. Those who downloaded it from Napster (as then was) or other file-sharing services experienced no such restrictions.

More recently, the music business has insisted that Apple include DRM in tracks downloaded from the iTunes Music Store. If you are a legitimate, paying consumer of music online, you are restricted in what kind of devices you can use to listen to it, where you can listen to it and, potentially, for how long you can listen to it.

Apple wouldn't be the first company to turn off its DRM after the business has wound down, leaving customers' music effectively dead on their hard drives, incapable of being copied elsewhere or played on a new system. Attempt to circumvent these restrictions, and you're a criminal under US law (and the law of many other countries). Had you pirated the music, certainly, you'd be a criminal in the first place - but you could do what you liked with it, and it would be yours forever.

The music business, thankfully, is waking up from this blatantly idiotic state of affairs. Increasingly, it is offering unencumbered MP3s from online stores such as Amazon's (and, in some cases, iTunes). John Riccitiello would presumably recoil in horror at such a concept - after all, he reckons that without the protection of DRM, EA would be "in business for free". Yet music companies - some of them far bigger and far, far more experienced than EA - clearly disagree.

They've recognised an essential truth which the videogames industry desperately needs to grasp. You cannot protect media products through technological means. In an arms race with determined pirates - many of them simply hobbyists working from their bedrooms for no reward other than kudos, and nigh-on impossible to track down - technology firms will lose every single time. If cunning hackers can crack the protection of closed, custom-designed hardware systems like the Xbox 360, the Wii and the PlayStation Portable, what hope does a software system running on a completely open platform like the PC have?

There are ways to stop pirates in their tracks, but they're all business solutions, not technical solutions. World of Warcraft is correctly fingered by Riccitiello as a perfect example (although he inaccurately describes it as "DRM", which it isn't - in fact, WoW notably contains no DRM worth a damn, and you can happily copy the game client around, install it on multiple PCs, lend the discs to your friends and so on). Relying on subscriptions for your income, with upfront sales being little more than padding on the numbers, is a perfect business strategy to minimise piracy - although of course, it only works for very specific types of product.

You could also try increasing the value of your retail product to make it worthwhile to buy it, rather than stealing it. Include one-time use codes which download in-game extras, perhaps (although they'll get pirated too, you're now loading the dice in your own favour - pirates will have extra hassle to access the new content, your users will get it with ease). Create limited editions with genuinely worthwhile product in them, and watch your pre-orders soar. Hell, simply engage your community and build loyalty - consumers who like your brand and find your developers personable are a lot more likely to open their wallets than those who think you're the Evil Empire.

But before you do any of that, there's a Step One to this reform programme. It's pretty damned obvious. First, you stop selling your legitimate customers crippled, encumbered versions of your media, versions which are notably inferior to the versions they're being offered by the pirates.

Media companies can whinge and moan about pirates until the cows come home, but the simple reality is that while your paid-for version of a product is less functional and more annoying than the free pirate version, you're driving your customers into the welcoming arms of Bittorrent.

If we're really going to make inroads into converting pirate downloads into retail sales, then the industry's executives need to start thinking with those rational business heads they're meant to have - rather than with with their impotent sense of outrage and injustice - and drop this defective, useless technology.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.