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Data without Borders: DRM as a consumer lock-in mechanism

by Jay Heiser  |  November 9, 2011  |  1 Comment

I have to wonder how many consumers truly understand that when they are paying money for rights-managed content that they have locked themselves into the future of a specific vendor.  At best, this represents a lifetime relationship, and at worst, it represents the potential to lose years worth of music or books.

A perfect example would be this year’s business failure of the Borders book store chain. Borders offered an ebook service, and those who spent money to license this digital content now find that their supplier is missing. In the olden days, the business viability of your local book store had absolutely no impact on your ability to read whatever you might have bought from them. In the digital world, your continued ability to use rights-managed content, be it music, video, or books, is completely dependent upon the willingness and ability of a service to support it on your current device. You cannot access your purchase without the key to unlock it, and an application to consume it.

While most services download the key to whatever your initial consumption device is, be it a computer, a phone, a book reader, a tablet, or some other sort of player, there can be no reasonable expectation that this device will last for more than several years. Devices break, they are stolen, they become obsolete, and Windows requires periodic restoration.  I’ve got 80 year old records that I can play, and 15 year old files that I cannot.

While many people are happy to only watch a movie or read a book once, I certainly am not the only consumer who has a large collection of books and movies that I expect to use for the remainder of my life (however long that may be). Books, LPs, and CDs are all relatively open, and in the unlikely eventuality that I can no longer purchase readers for either form of music disk, the migration path is simple, and entirely within my own control.  In contrast, licensed digital media introduces two significant requirements for ongoing accessibility:
1) a license server willing and able to serve replacement keys to legacy customers
2) reading client software for new devices

Clearly, a bankrupt Borders is going to be unable to fulfill either of these requirements. In this case, the licensing agency had a minority stake in Kobo, which has apparently agreed to take on support for existing Borders customers (although they are actually being somewhat non-committal).  In practice, this probably doesn’t represent a huge impact for Borders customers–at least for those who figure out how to transition to Kobo while the offer is still outstanding.  What it does mean is that Kobo will be providing licensing and software support to some group of people who have never paid them for it, and in the future, may well never pay for any Kobo content.

I’ve experimented with both Microsoft’s media player and Apple’s iTunes, and found both to be quirky. Effective use of either means entering metadata, like ratings, that is probably not portable, so even without paying for content, the more you use one of these products, the greater the level of vendor lock-in you are creating for yourself. For those who’ve given up on CDs and LPs (yes, they still press these things), the lock-in stakes are much, much higher.

From my POV, managed content is a bit more convenient than going to the library, but its not something that can be counted on for indefinite availability. If I’m going to listen to a tune multiple times, or if I’m going to mark up a book with annotations and highlighting, I’m going to pay for an unlicensed copy that I can control.

Category: applications  cloud-computing  risk-management  security  

Tags: drm  rights-management  vendor-lockin  

Jay Heiser
Research VP
6 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Jay Heiser is a research vice president specializing in the areas of IT risk management and compliance, security policy and organization, forensics, and investigation. Current research areas include cloud and SaaS computing risk and control, technologies and processes for the secure sharing of data… Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Data without Borders: DRM as a consumer lock-in mechanism

  1. Your post is spot on. I’d like to offer one other reason why electronic content is not suitable for consumption in its current form. Through EULAs, the content providers are destroying the aftermarket. Gone are the days of selling those albums that you no longer listen to and using the money to buy new content. This is especially concerning when considering ebooks. What will the world be like when give a book to a friend, or buy an older book for a couple of bucks?

    In my opinion, we need legislation similar to the copyright act which offers certain guarantees to content consumers. These perpetual licensing models are nothing more than long-term rentals and the pendulum is swinging too far into the content creator’s hands. There needs to be a balance where things like first-sale doctrine and fair use still apply.

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