I was reading the Reuters article the other day about the issues with DRM and how Apple has used DRM to solidify their position in the music business. This got me thinking about DRM and the reasons why it might fail to survive the next decade.
The arguments against DRM are well understood. Basically, DRM does nothing to prevent piracy, enables multiple standards to emerge that limit content portability, and generally pisses off consumers. (The conflicting standards problem has even been echoed recently by the MPAA’s Brad Hunt, who also managed to acknowledge the pissing off consumers bit.) But in thinking about DRM’s longer-term impact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the underlying reason for its impending failure is more fundamental than some irritated consumers. This is because DRM is about much more than intellectual property rights, or artist compensation, or studio investments. DRM is about the cultural relevance of media assets and how that cultural relevance is attained. This is about who gets to create memes and determine our culture.
“The term "meme," coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, refers to a unit of cultural information transferrable from one mind to another. Dawkins said, Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. A meme propagates itself as a unit of cultural evolution analogous in many ways to the gene (the unit of genetic information). Often memes propagate as more-or-less integrated cooperative sets or groups, referred to as memeplexes or meme-complexes.”
Over the past thousand years or so we have seen a pretty rapid increase in the rate at which cultural information travels from one place to another. Modern tools of broadcast media, the printing press, followed by the telegraph, telephone, broadcast radio, TV, the Internet… have each resulted in the improved efficiency of the transport and consumption of cultural information. In recent years broadcast media has become increasingly efficient at displacing localized meme evolution to standardize culture across myriad demographic communities. Print, radio and television have become beacons of mass culture, around whose towers everyone huddles into grand tribes of bland consistency to the great benefit of a few content owners and advertisers. They create culture to suit their commercial needs.
But these tribes are now splintering as IP distribution opens up a world of choice that is again facilitated by community. New smaller towers are emerging and causing previously monolithic groups to fracture and begin disassembling into smaller and tighter tribes of like-minded individuals. This process is leading to a cultural renaissance in which thousands of new memes are blooming daily. And these are not manufactured memes, crafted by advertisers or studios and forced down the mouths of consumers who have been forced to pick the least common denominator of cultural affiliation. These are memes born at the hands of other individuals or small groups and grown to success through the merits of their concept. These are our memes created for our benefit.
Anyway, so what does this have to do with DRM?
DRM, at its very core, is about controlling the dissemination of information. In doing so, DRM directly impedes upon the portability of content. And content, whether it is text, audio, or video, is cultural information. It is the signal used to carry the message from one person to another. DRM lies in direct contradiction to person-to-person syndication, which is perfectly fine and dandy when syndication only occurs over a highly-controlled broadcast network. But this is death to a cultural asset that travels the edge of the network.
The problem is that culture in the age of the Internet is no longer being broadcast (well, not for much longer anyway), culture is being passed around from one group to the next, one individual to another. This attribute is fundamental to the way in which memes evolve and propagate in this environment. And while this type of edge distribution of memes has always occurred to some extent, the introduction of the Internet has allowed it to compete against broadcast, and win.
Essential to the ability of cultural information to dominate in an edge distribution model is its portability. In essence, these units of cultural information succeed only because they are viral. They are viral not just because they are compelling; they are viral because they move around with ease. They can travel from San Antonio to Beijing and root in both locations in a matter of hours. Media that is wrapped in DRM or a price tag is not viral and is too easily drowned out by other memes who have no such handicaps (no matter how much marketing money is thrown at it.) Culture wants to be portable and fungible. DRM stands in direct opposition to this, and in doing so destines the protected asset to wallow in cultural obscurity. This is the reason why NBC and ABC and all these other guys keep their videos up on YouTube. Cuban’s right, it is clear infringement. But they don’t take it down, because they have to be part of the conversation. They must stay culturally relevant or they are really in deep shit.
DRM is fundamentally about protecting short-term cash flow at the expense of cultural relevance. This is a trade-off that most in the media business instinctively understand, but don’t quite know how to address. But what should be clear is that without cultural significance your audience will quickly evaporate and your revenues along with it. It may not happen today, but within the next decade the attachment of DRM policies to digital media will all but guarantee that your media assets wind up in a cultural backwater (as in, no audience.) This seems an awful price to pay for a technology that has to date proven totally ineffectual at doing anything to defeat piracy. It won’t be long before this price becomes apparent and DRM dies a quiet death. I don’t think anyone will even attend the funeral.