Listening to DRM pop

/ 11 March 2008

The New York Times wrote earlier this month that publishers are moving away from DRM for audiobooks. Publisher have long insisted that they need Digital Rights Management to ensure their customers don’t steal their works. But others have seen DRM as Digital Restrictions Management that simply punishes customers by not letting them use the content they’ve purchased on the devises they own. It looks like the publishing industry is following the music industry’s conclusion that tripping up your customers and assuming they are criminals is a bad idea.

Of course, there is a business side to this. Publishers are also unhappy about the power they put in one vendors hands by pushing DRM content. For music that vendor was Apple. For audiobooks that vendor is Audible (now part of Amazon). Ironically, Amazon itself provided the music industry with a way out of the DRM bind by creating a very successful DRM-free alternative to iTunes in the Amazon MP3 store. Now it will be interesting to see if Audible gets behind the move to DRM-free audiobooks.

I’d like to give Apple some credit here. They usually get hammered folks for not licensing their FairPlay DRM technology. This has meant, for example, that the Zune has not been able to play content purchased at the iTunes store. It is rarely recognized, though, that by doing this Apple has left its partners with only one reasonable choice besides iTunes and FairPlay: going DRM-free. Since no other vendor in the market could play FairPlay content, to break away from the Apple stranglehold the industry had to break away from DRM altogether. Now we will see what Apple really believes in, if it starts licensing FairPlay to other manufacturers this would be a clear signal that it is trying to extend the life of DRM vs. free content. I don’t think that will happen.

All of this stands to simplify the life of those who are trying to move content onto devices like the iPod or other MP3 players. This may make life tougher for outfits like PlayAway as well. Still, PlayAway has a niche that may help it weather the storm: it serves people who do not own a player and want to share the content without moving digital files. Libraries like that. We’ll have to see who else (museums, doctors?) goes down that road.

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