Don't Call It 'Social DRM'

RSS  •  Permalink  •  Created 13 Mar 2015  •  Written by Alberto Pettarin

Short version

The term "social DRM" is confusing, and it should be avoided.

Use "watermark" instead.

Long version

The term "social DRM", often seen in eBook stores/blogs/sites, generates confusion, and I think we should avoid using it.

The reason is its "DRM" part.

Consider the definition from Wikipedia:

Digital rights management (DRM) is a class of technologies that are used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, copyright holders, and individuals with the intent to control the use of digital content and devices after sale; there are, however, many competing definitions. With first-generation DRM software, the intent is to control copying; with second-generation DRM, the intent is to control executing, viewing, copying, printing, and altering of works or devices. The term is also sometimes referred to as copy protection, copy prevention, and copy control, although the correctness of doing so is disputed. DRM is a set of access control technologies.

or the definition from Free Software Foundation:

Digital Restrictions Management is the practice of imposing technological restrictions that control what users can do with digital media.

So, if we accept that

DRM is a technological mean to control access to digital contents and what user can do with them,

we immediately see why "social DRM" is a poor choice.

In fact, "social DRM" almost always indicates watermarking techniques (adding visible or hidden digital watermarks, modifying metadata, steganography, etc.) and watermarking methods do not control access nor use, they just discourage (illegal) sharing. Indeed, if the user knows that her file has been modified to include information linked to her identity, she is less prone to share her copy of that file with other people via P2P, file lockers, or even to give a copy to a friend — hence the "social" of the name (from "social shame/legal liability if caught").

One might argue that, as the Wikipedia passage quoted above states, the definition of DRM is debated and all this discussion is futile.

However, I am worried about the widespread use of "social DRM" because "watermarking" is substantially different from "hard DRM" methods (e.g., Adobe DRM), and I fear that the "DRM" part in "social DRM" just generates more confusion in the end users (and sometimes journalists/bloggers) and it leads people into thinking that "DRM is not that bad", just because they associate the term "DRM" with watermarking (when called "social DRM").

We all know that "hard" DRM is bad, even those campaigning for it because they work for/with companies benefiting from it (at the expense of the consumers).

The clearer the message, the sooner we will get rid of DRM in eBooks, freeing time, energy, and resources to pursue more interesting endeavors.

In summary, please avoid the term "social DRM", and use "watermark" instead.