crypto and public policy

When DRM Breaks User Expectations

Filed under: Security & Crypto February 17, 2005 @ 10:50 am

So it seems the Napster “music for rent” DRM scheme has been broken. This is not surprising. Apple’s iTunes was broken with PlayFair a few months after launch. In general, DRM is breakable on any hardware that doesn’t have a trusted computing element to it. And that’s a good thing, but it’s not what I want to discuss right now.

Instead, let’s look at why this is a bigger deal than Apple’s break. Let’s examine why, even though Apple’s iTunes DRM is not exactly bulletproof, users aren’t rampantly breaking it, while Napster may not be so lucky. It’s about user expectation.

What Apple did right is build a system that users understand. You buy a song, you “own” the song. After you’ve paid your 99 cents, you can play it just about anywhere you’d like. You can burn the song a large number of times, large enough that most people will never hit the upper limit. You can download it to as many ipods as you’d like. And you can share the song between up to 5 computers. What that means is that most users are never stifled by the DRM.

On the other hand, Napster’s rental model claims that you can listen to all the songs you want for $15/month. Until you stop paying, that is. And that’s just not what users expect. The idea of a music subscription fee is simply not mainstream. Some people like it, but they are in the minority. So when Bob realizes that he must continue to pay up forever or lose his entire music collection, he’ll find a way around it. He’ll download the software that hooks into his sound card and rips the DRM right out. And he won’t feel all that bad about it, either, because darnit it’s his music and he paid for it.

Maybe one day we’ll all be paying subscription fees for everything we do. But so far, the buy-and-own music model is the dominant mindset. People fondly remember the first CD they ever bought. Doubtful that they’ll ever remember the first CD they ever rented.

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