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Locked Away

Locked Away

Do the death throes of music DRM mean anything for games?

It's not exactly been the loudest revolution of all time - in fact, it's been so quiet that you might have missed it - but there has been a genuine revolution in the music industry in the last fortnight. The old order has been overthrown, and it isn't happy; a new, upstart approach, widely lauded by the public and the grass-roots, is taking its place. So far, it's been a bloodless coup, although it's hard to say how long that will last once the financial results start filtering through in the coming quarters.

Actually, it's not entirely true to say that this coup has been bloodless. There's one head rolling in the basket beneath the guillotine blade; it's ugly, unloved, and it's called DRM.

DRM, of course, is something most people in the videogames market will be familiar with at this stage. At its most basic level, DRM is just a concept - it's the idea of using encryption software to control what a user can do with a piece of media they've bought from you.

For companies treading out into the great unknown of downloadable content, DRM is a comforting safety blanket to clutch at; without it, you're giving someone a file which they could easily just pass on to one of their friends.

Needless to say, that scares companies involved in digital downloads witless - and a plethora of DRM solutions have popped up to reassure them that they're not just handing their whole business over to pirates. That's the first problem; none of those DRM solutions actually worth with one another properly. You can't download music from the iTunes store and play it on a Microsoft-compatible music player, or vice versa.

That feeds into the second problem - a great, whopping, huge problem with DRM and indeed, with a lot of ham-fisted copyright protection efforts in general. Quite simply, DRM takes rights away from consumers which they are used to having with other products.

A CD has no DRM; you can sell it to someone else, you can copy it to your PC and play it on any media playing software, you can rip it to any portable music device, you can copy tracks from it to make a mix-CD for a friend.

Now, some of those uses aren't legal, and some of them even the courts seem unsure about in some jurisdictions, but that doesn't actually matter. From a real-world, grass-roots user perspective, those are the things you can do, and do easily, with a CD. You can do the same things, of course, with pirate MP3s which you download illegally.

Herein lies the rub - you can't do those things with legal, DRM-protected music. Which means that, in a bizarre twist, legal music has less actual value to consumers than illegal music.

Which is why, to a large extent, this old order had to fall. EMI was the first of the big four music companies to buckle; it's launching its music catalogue, without DRM, on stores like iTunes in the near future. Now Universal looks like it's falling in line, with a deal with Amazon to do likewise. The remaining firms, Sony and Warner, simply cannot resist the trend which their two competitors have started. Music DRM will inevitably collapse like a row of dominoes.

Why? Because eventually, it had to sink in that DRM wasn't just angering geeks with blogs - it was hurting customers, and it was providing them with a clear, logical and genuinely sensible reason not to buy legal music. All of the threats of legal action and cajoling appeals to people's better nature are meaningless if, at the end of the day, your legal product is significantly crippled compared to the illegal (but easily obtainable) alternative.

And as to the relevance of this decision to the videogames market? Well, it's both more and less relevant than it appears at first glance.

A number of commentators - mostly out in the blogosphere - have opined that this decision must, logically, have a knock-on effect on games and movies. That's not necessarily true, because those mediums (and games especially) actually come with very different consumer expectations to music.

The average consumer is very used to the idea of being able to rip his music, listen to it on multiple devices, copy it between formats and even shuffle it around to create personal playlists. Those expectations, however, don't exist for games, and only exist for a very small (but growing) number of movie consumers.

Games, in particular, are seen as products which only work on one device, which cannot be copied and cannot be modified. Under those circumstances, DRM is far less of an issue than it is with music, and the same pressures which have forced the hands of EMI and Universal simply don't exist.

However, the revolution in music DRM still has important lessons for the videogames market. All too often, videogames companies have displayed a willingness to impose copy protection measures on their software which actually seriously disadvantage or inconvenience legitimate purchasers of the product.

On the PC, in particular, copy protection has often been mismanaged to the point where playing a pirate version of a game can sometimes be a better experience - and the advent of networked consoles opens up the potential for similar mistakes to be made.

The core lesson to take away from the failure of music DRM is simple. Copy protection should inconvenience pirates - but never, ever at the expense of also inconveniencing legitimate, paying customers.

Failing at that key test is what drove the groundswell of dislike against music DRM and the companies who imposed it. Their failures should be foremost in the mind of games industry professionals as the market pushes increasingly into digital downloads and concerns over IP protection grow louder than ever.

Dan Pearson avatar

Dan Pearson