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See Inside August 2011

The Perils of Copy Protection

Tech companies handcuff our files to protect against digital pirates. The strategy isn't just annoying for customers—it could be hurting sales

Years ago Saturday Night Live featured a hilarious sketch—a talk show called Ruining It for Everyone. The guests were all people whose stupid, destructive acts wound up changing society forever, adding bureaucracy and rules and making life less convenient for the rest of the world.

There was the guy who poisoned a Tylenol bottle, which led to the new world of tamper-proof seals; the woman who first drove off without paying for self-serve gas, triggering the era of having to prepay; and the guy who first befouled a restaurant bathroom, so now only paying customers are allowed to use them.

They should have had the guy who first pirated music. He, after all, launched the modern age of copy protection—our current crazy world where the honest are penalized and the pirates go free.

When the iTunes store opened, every song was copy-protected. You could play the tracks on a computer or an iPod—but not on your cell phone or on any non-Apple music player.

Internet movies are also ridiculously protected. For example, once you rent a movie, you generally have 24 hours to finish watching it. That’s idiotic. What if it gets to be bedtime, and you want to finish the movie tomorrow night? Don’t these movie executives have children? And why 24 hours? Does it take 25 for a hacker to remove the copy protection?

No, of course not. Nonpaying movie buffs don’t have to strip off the copy protection; they never even see it. They use BitTorrent and get their movies for free.

Similarly, the proprietary e-book copy-protection schemes of Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble ensure that each company’s titles can’t be read on rivals’ machines. It’s an attempt to stop book pirates, of course—but those people are off happily downloading their books from free piracy sites.

The biggest problem is that all of this inconvenience is based on a gut feeling. In a world without copy protection, would the e-book, music and movie industries collapse? Instinct—or at least media company executives’ instinct—certainly says so. But without some kind of test, nobody can say for sure.

Actually there have been such tests—at least three of them.

I make most of my income writing computer books. To my great distress, I discovered that they are widely available online as PDF files. But when I griped on my blog, my readers challenged the assumption that I was losing sales.

“First of all,” they said, “you’re counting a lot of people who never would have bought the book in the first place. Those don’t represent lost sales. And you’re not counting the people who like the PDF so much, they go buy the print edition or discover from the PDF sample that they like your writing.” One reader challenged me to a test: make one book available both on paper and as an unprotected PDF file. Report the effect of sales after one year.

I did that. The results were clear: Piracy was rampant. The book was everywhere online. But weirdly, my readers were also proved right. Sales of the printed edition did not suffer; in fact, they rose slightly year over year.

A recent satirical children’s book showed how piracy can actually boost sales. Months before the book came out, a PDF of the story was leaked online and promptly went viral. Yet the leak generated so much interest in the book that eager readers soon pushed it to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list.

Even the music industry came to realize that copy protection makes life miserable for the honest customers while doing absolutely nothing to stop the pirates. Today virtually no music files sold online are copy-protected.

Sure, the online stores still lose sales to music pirates—but not measurably more than before. Meanwhile music copy protection is no longer inconveniencing everybody else.

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