DRM is . . .

DRM is all about punishing the customer.

At some point, your DRM will let your best customers down, and you’d better have a damned good story then.

Right now, the person I’m talking to does not have a good story. They’re treating me like a pirate. Guess what I’m about to become?



Update: After nearly an hour on the phone, to no avail, I continued to hack away at the issue, and finally “solved” the issue by doing some kind of update. It looked a lot like the other stuff I’d been trying, but apparently this one update was different and seemed to do the job.

I am being purposely opaque about the product in question.

DRM systems are complex and difficult to administrate even when you know what you’re doing. If you’re an end-user and something goes haywire, you don’t have a prayer. You just see “Error: You can’t do that” for any one of a hundred reasons. You twist knobs and hit switches until something works.

In this case it looks like some of the internal utilities created by the team who developed the DRM have been pressed into service as customer-facing tools. As you might expect, these tools are horrible. They leave a bad taste in my mouth, and I’ve written more than my fair share of horrible tools. I still don’t know if things are working, or if this house of cards will fall apart again. It is a terrible thing that these tools have to exist.

As customers, we deserve better. As engineers and designers, we need to improve.

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15 Responses to DRM is . . .

  1. Mike Brent says:

    Yep… I’ve purchased exactly three pieces of DRM’d media, and after changing PCs I no longer have access to any of them, and the original publisher isn’t really interested.

    I no longer purchase DRM-protected media.

    BTW: read your blog for a while now, I love the coding world stories. I came in originally to read the old Atari ones and stuck around for the newer ones. 😉

    • James says:

      The only DRM encrusted stuff I knowingly buy are iPhone apps, but I’m less bothered by those because they’re cheap. Fortunately Amazon sell MP3s that aren’t protected.

      Someone needs to invent the Internet version of the little video rental stores that used to exist in the 90s. None of this monthly subscription rubbish, just £3 to rent a film overnight. Some sort of legal replacement for hopping on a torrent website and downloading a blu-ray rip while the tea cooks.

      Something like YouTube, but for films. It’s not like the technology doesn’t exist after all.

      • Jon W says:

        “Someone should invent…” — Have you even looked?
        Both Amazon and Xbox Live have had online video rentals for several years!
        Using DRM, even…

      • Enno Rehling says:

        In the US, that is what netflix does. Licensing makes it impossible to have this in other countries, of course. Licensing is that other curse our modern world is under.

        • Adrock says:

          Netflix still has licensing issues. Dexter will be cut from Netflix’s Instant Streaming this summer because of some lack of agreement with Showtime.

  2. chrisl says:

    I second that, I also came the first time to read the atari st story (an atari st was my very first computer)

  3. joel garry says:

    Ooh-ooh, share terrible tools stories!

  4. OrcRys says:

    I had a similar problem with a game that wouldn’t run from the physical DVD on several computers. The retailer refused to take it back, because it was working on theirs. Was it because of a copy-protection system, a defective media or an incompatibility? I’ll never know.
    After going to the support forum, I learned that I wasn’t the only one with this kind of problem, a lot of users couldn’t get the game working.
    Since the DVD could be read on my old laptop, I decided to make an image of it using dd, and tried to mount it on my main computer with a software that could handle virtual drives . It worked.
    When I tried to describe the method on the support forum, I was immediately ‘moderated’ on grounds of encouraging piracy. Using completely legit tools that are part of any good sysadmin toolbox. My account on the forum was shut down, and my problem was never solved.

  5. Dan says:

    I’m going to guess that someone really badly wants to play Portal…

    Nah, just kidding. Or am I?

    Seriously though, that’s the main problem with DRM, Apple locked me out of some content, so I called them up and asked them what they were going to do about it. When they said Nothing, I told them they had lost a customer. What I was shocked to find is that when I told my friends the same story, they decided to stop being customers of Apple too. Now, 25 people doesn’t seem like a big change, but imagine if that happened oh a couple hundred times? Then maybe these companies would go out of their way to listen to customers. Its not the DRM I mind, its when the DRM doesn’t work and there isn’t a path to get my content back.

    • Chris says:


      It’s not a matter of _if_ the DRM will stop working, it’s merely a matter of _when_. This is the important thing to keep in mind. When it’s all said and done, DRM will have resulted in screwing some percentage of your paying customers (whatever the size of that percentage might be). Not including DRM, however, will result in a negative impact to exactly zero of your paying customers.

      Any business making a conscious decision to alienate and hurt paying customers must either be unnecessarily masochistic, or tragically shortsighted.

      • landon says:

        Some of the books I own are over 100 years old. Needless to say, I can read them. Some CDs date from 1985. I can still play them. None of these have DRM. If they did, I strongly suspect they could not be made to work without a DMCA violation.

        I don’t expect most of the existing DRM technologies to be supported in 100 years. My great-great-grandkids will be unable to use the digital books or songs that I currently “own” that are under DRM control.

        DRM is renting, even if you think you own it.

        • Marcin says:

          Good point! Buy a printed book for $30 or rent an e-book for fairly same price… This is the doubt keeps me away from Kindle for awhile.

  6. Mike Albaugh says:

    The Computer History Museum in Mountain View has a nice video presentation (in the Storage Alcove) about the losses from obsolete media and formats. Not as sharply critical as I might be, and only mentions the non-deliberate issues (e.g. who can play a LaserDisc these days). I suspect mentioning DRM would be im-politic.

    BTW: if you haven’t been to CHM lately, please consider it next time you’re near.

  7. Justin says:

    I am seriously considering modding my wii so I can load my legit games on a usb drive. 4 year olds are not kind to discs and I have no recourse if the disc is damaged, aside from having it resurfaced, which may or may not work.

    Needless to say, I am putting myself in violation of federal law by attempting to make sure games I purchase are playable and continue to be so.

    I still will only buy CD’s, because I know that I can rip them and preserve them. Same with DVD’s.

  8. Handy Hank says:

    I’m going to be vague also.

    My dad’s business has a large industrial machine that is controlled by a piece of software that costs US$30,000. It is protected by a parallel port dongle. When we first purchased it, we were assured that the company will offer warranty should anything happen to it.

    Fast forward 5 years later. Dongle dies. I call both my local rep, and the head office (long distance in a different European country….) They all tell me that they no longer have dongles for that version. But for a small upgrade cost of $5000, they’ll upgrade me to the latest version. I *don’t* want the latest version. I’m happy with what I have!!! Despite having paid full price for the right to own a license to use this software, this specific version, I was pretty much given the finger. Their excuse was “auto manufacturers don’t stock parts for old cars indefinitely…”

    Pissed off, I went onto google, and typed + crack. Found some guy in Mexico, who offered to send me a crack for $300, after a wire transfer from Western Union. Within a span of 45 minutes, I was using my software again, minus the dongle! The best part of it all was, I can use a laptop with nothing sticking out!

    The guy tried to enter my building several months later, wondering how I was still in business without using his software. We pretty much refused to let him in, and told him we were using an old package we had from before. Personally, I think my dongle was time-bombed. I spoke to several other colleagues in the industry, who had similar experiences. This is why I will never trust DRM.

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