How to Do DRM Right and Keep Customers Happy

Image of LocksDRM stands for Digital Rights Management. However, in the copyright world, it might as well have become a four-letter word.

However, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t DRM itself that is the problem: It’s how DRM has been implemented up to this point. Whether it is CD keys, Internet activation, or hardware binding, DRM has largely been a one-two punch of frustrating legitimate customers and doing little to stop or slow piracy.

In fact, there are many who believe DRM actually drives piracy, by making the pirated versions of the product better. Some even go as far as to buy one legitimate copy of a game, but pirate a copy to actually play.

However, DRM is going to be a part of the Web moving forward. Not just because many larger copyright holders insist upon it, but because the legitimate services want to protect their investments in both the content they license and what they build.

This doesn’t mean that DRM has to be a bad thing. In fact, if done well, DRM can be a great benefit to both copyright holders and consumers, but the focus has to change in how DRM is implemented.

Simply put, if you want the Web to accept your DRM and follow it, you’ll have to have more than laws to prevent circumvention. You have to make DRM in the best interest of the consumer and something they actually want.

DRM’s Ugly History

The full history of DRM is much too expansive for this or any one article, however, much of the backlash against modern DRM got its start in 2005 when it was revealed that Sony’s DRM for its CDs contained a rootkit, or a means to hide files on your computer. This was seen both as a major security risk for the PC user, as hackers could exploit the rootkit as well, and as an invasion of the rights of the consumer.

Since then DRM has been in the limelight a great deal and almost never in a positive way. Whether it’s activation servers going down, preventing legitimate customers from playing, incomplete CD keys or unskippable copyright warnings/trailers on DVDs, DRM has not had an easy time.

The reason for all of the negativity is pretty simple: DRM, in these cases has harmed legitimate customers. It’s put their computers at risked, denied them access to legitimately-owned content and added difficulties in setting up and running what they bought. This makes the customers feel that they are being punished for the actions of pirates and sours them not just to the companies that use DRM, but to the concept of DRM itself.

But the reality is that DRM is, in some cases, actually very popular. The reason is because the customer doesn’t even realize it’s there.

DRM’s Success Stories

Valve Sofotware’s Steam platform, as we’ve talked about before, is possibly the most popular and the most-liked DRM system on the planet.

The reason is simple: Most people don’t think of it as DRM.

Fundamentally, it’s a platform designed to aid in the buying and selling of games digitally. However, it also adds achievements, social networking, convenience and, especially with its sales, lower costs.

Despite all of this, Steam is very much DRM. You can’t take a Steam game and install it on dozens of computers at the same time, you can’t resell games that are purchased and you often times can’t even mod the games you own. However, for most customers, those restrictions are barely noticed and are more than made up by what Steam adds.

This is somewhat similar to Spotify. Though Spotify may be controversial with artists, it certainly has made inroads with consumers. However, there are sharp limitations on what you can do with music accessed through the service. Even with a pro account, you can only connect a certain number of devices and you can only stream to one device at a time.

However, those limitations are exceeded by the cost and the wide access to music. For the customer, Spotify is still a very good trade.

Even iTunes, which did away with DRM on tracks sold, re-introduced some DRM elements with it’s iCloud service, allowing only 10 devices per account. However, once again, the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks, including the syncing ability and the iTunes Match service to give consumers high-quality copies of old audio files.

In short, it isn’t DRM itself that is the issue, it’s how DRM is used and that’s the issue that major copyright holders need to address.

Doing DRM Right

If you feel the need to use DRM on a product, you need to ask one critical question: What’s in this for the customer?

If you force DRM upon your customer without giving them something in return, even those who do buy will be unhappy and less likely to buy again.

If you sell ebooks and require some form of DRM on it, such as a password, your customers will be less inclined to buy your next one as there was an extra burden on them to read it. However, if you make that password a login to a members-only area where they get increased access, networking opportunities and more, your customers are getting something in return.

With DRM, you are taking something away from or asking something additional from your customers. If you do that and nothing else, you sour the deal. If you make it a trade, especially one that favors your customers, they’ll actually want the DRM rather than oppose it and you can make legitimate copies far more valuable than any pirated ones.

On that front, there are many ways you can improve the customer’s experience to make the DRM a better deal:

  1. Convenience: Make the copy easier to get, available in a format that they can obtain quicker and easier than other types.
  2. Cost: Make the legitimate (DRMed) copy cheaper and easier to afford.
  3. Extra Features: Offer features that can’t be obtained without it, such as multiplayer, greater access to the creator or early access to newer works.
  4. Updates: Use the DRM system to send out updates, add new content or expand on what was already bought.
  5. Membership: Give your customers a club to join with benefits all its own, whether its networking, support or other kinds of access.

In short, if you ask customers to accept DRM, they may do it begrudgingly but they will not be happy about it. Make the DRM something that benefits them, they’ll never think about the limitations it places upon them.

Bottom Line

In the end, copyright holders and content creators are going to want to protect the work they create. Unfortunately, DRM by itself is never the answer. Not only does it negatively impact legitimate customers, but it doesn’t stop piracy.

Instead, the real answer is make DRM part of the marketing strategy and a net positive for customers. Not only does this make customers want what you’re offering more, but it blunts piracy more by making legitimate copies even more appealing.

As per the discussion on the types of copyright conversations, this is definitely an issue sitting firmly in the “practical” camp. Not liking the DRM a company uses doesn’t justify piracy ethically or legally, but practical realities of DRM are much more clear.

As a copyright holder, you’re also a business person and your job is to keep your customers happy, not burden them more. DRM can either be a great way to make them mad or, if done right, to make them your loyal fans.

The difference is in how you approach it.

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