It’s interesting to look at something like DRM from both sides – or rather, from one of the two sides, the third being the assholes who put the DRM in place to begin with, yeah I’m tipping my hand here, deal with it – both that of the content-creator and the consumer. It’s not that I think people who occupy that conceptual and experiential space are rare; far from it. But when DRM gets talked about, I honestly feel like the actual creators of the content, who often have very little if anything to do with the DRM-application side of things, frequently get neglected. I had a novel come out this week (yeah, so I have this problem where I can’t seem to keep from mentioning it in whatever I say now), and then I saw this post by author Seanan McGuire on pirating ebooks, and it highlighted to me that I’m in this position now. Different kinds of digital actions are of course, not confined to digital aspects of reality; they spread and ripple and subtly change everything. If someone pirates my ebook who would have otherwise paid for it – which doesn’t characterize nearly all of the “illegal” downloading that goes on – then I get paid less. I have less quantifiable money. Which has very physical consequences.

But what I think is really interesting here is what DRM has the potential to do to the value of the thing I’ve worked to create, and what that has the potential to do to how we construct value in the entirety of our experienced reality. How we relate, on a fundamental level, to our things.

Precisely because the idea of “our” is up for grabs.

Gabe Newell of Valve had something pretty strong to say about DRM back in 2011:


We’re a broken record on this. This belief that you increase your monetization by making your game worth less through aggressive digital rights management is totally backwards . It’s a service issue, not a technology issue.

The second sentence is what’s most important here: the idea that DRM actually decreases the worth of your product. It damages its value. This is obviously incredibly problematic from the consumer’s standpoint if you’re charging the same amount for a product that’s worth less, but what I think is most worth attention is why that product is worth less. And I think it comes down to how we understand property and property rights.

What I want to argue is that when DRM makes products less valuable, it also makes them less real.

How do we understand reality, at the most basic level? Real is what we can see. It’s also what we can touch, which means that it’s what we can manipulate in some way. This ability to manipulate, in our culture, isn’t just about practical ability but the ability given to us when something unarguably belongs to us, when we have the legal power to decide what to do with it. Now obviously this legal power is subject to a variety of constraints – you can’t simply do literally whatever you want even to stuff that you own – but I think the simplest understanding of this idea is useful here, given that I’m talking about meaning that’s created more at the visceral, instinctive level than the rational, logical level. So real is about perception, and it’s also about power. About what we can do.

I think this, incidentally, is one of the reasons why we tend to privilege the physical over the digital, which is simple enough to be obvious but still worth pointing out.

Something that’s fully ours, that we can control and manipulate and hold in our hands and lend and give away and break if we want to – this is real to us, and it’s also valuable. We value something we own much more highly than something we merely rent or lease, because its value belongs only to us. We know that value is reliable. It will (so we like to think, anyway) be there when we wake up. We can do something with it today, or we can decide to wait until tomorrow.

DRM damages this so severely that many consumers regard products with severe DRM to be essentially worthless, if not outright dangerous to the consumer.

We’re still working through how we attribute value to things that have more digital than physical reality; a lot of this, as I’ve written before, comes out in how we deal with ebooks. We’re still struggling with the question of whether ebooks are more or less “real” than print, and the answer to this question is often not one based in purely rational thinking. And a lot of it comes down to the fact that we can’t hold ebooks, or store them, watch them age, smell the dust and the subtle degradation of the pages when we pull them off the shelf years later. They are nebulous and ephemeral in nature, unsettlingly timeless.

Now imagine what happens to this feeling when the company that sold you the product has the power to severely constrain what you can do with it, where you can use it and how, whether you can give it away. The ephemerality increases; if we have it today, there’s the subtle sense that we may not have it tomorrow – made startlingly real when one Amazon customer discovered that Amazon had apparently erased all of the books from her Kindle. I own no games that require an always-on internet connection, not only because the prospect is profoundly irritating, but because I feel like the game would be almost worthless to me if I couldn’t play it within a digital context that I control. My digital “space” is more real to me, because – whether or not this is actually true, and boy could that be debated – it’s mine. It would be like buying something and not being allowed to take it home.

What this suggest to me is that, if we define a great deal of our experienced reality by our relationship with our things, once something begins to change that relationship our entire understanding of one aspect of that experienced reality is changing as well. Our doesn’t mean what it used to. Ownership as a concept is being altered, if not actually degraded. Owners are increasingly becoming users, people who pay for the privilege of making use of something that they have almost no real control over. And again, this isn’t only about use but about how we understand digital aspects of reality and value-creation in the context of that reality.

One of the scarier things I found when I was wandering around the intertubes looking for more stuff on this is a short essay by Ed Felter on something he calls “Property Rights Management”, a version of DRM that would extend its concepts more fully into physical space:

Printer manufacturers want to sell printers at a low price and compensate by charging more for toner cartridges. To do this, they want to stop consumers from buying cheap third-party toner cartridges. So some printer makers have their printers do a cryptographic handshake with a chip in their cartridges, and they lock out third-party cartridges by programming the printers not to operate with cartridges that can’t do the secret handshake.

This is just one example, and of course the degree to which this might or might not happen remains to be seen, but I think it does highlight a final point, and really the entire point of this piece: altered understandings, meanings, and definitions – the very things by which we make sense of our reality – don’t stay confined to digital or to physical space. If digital and physical really do constitute the same reality, DRM really can change everything.

And if you’re a content-creator, at least one like me, the prospect isn’t a happy one.