This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog (“Why DRM Is Like Airport Security“). It’s republished with permission.
While flying home from TOC Bologna, I couldn’t help but think about some of the similarities between digital rights management (DRM) and airport security. Here are a few common points that come to mind:
False sense of security — Does anyone still believe DRM systems are hacker proof? Heck, even books that have never been legally distributed in any e-format are out there as illegal downloads. Just search for the phrase “harry potter ebook downloads” and you’ll see what I mean. Scanners are everywhere, so if physical books can be illegally shared, what makes you think a DRM’d title will never appear in the wild? On the airline side, I feel like we’re always focusing on the last attack (e.g., underwear bomber, shoe bomber, etc.) and not focusing instead on what the next idiot will try.
Treats everyone like a criminal — It’s hard not feeling like a convict when you’re going through airport security or coming back through immigration/customs. The assumption is you’re guilty until proven innocent by way of x-ray machines, full-body scans and patdowns. On the book side, the fact that I can’t treat my ebook purchase like I can my print book ones (e.g., can’t be resold or lent to a friend indefinitely) makes me feel like the retailer and publisher simply don’t trust me.
Highly inefficient — I now have two Kindles and an iPad, and in order to move content from one to the other I have to go through Amazon so they can make sure I’m not breaking the rules. What if I don’t have a web connection at that moment? I’m stuck and can’t shift that book from my battery-depleted iPad to my Kindle. What’s wrong with just connecting the two devices via Bluetooth? Not an option. How’s this relate to airport security? Look at the crazy and inefficient lines at the airport and the inconsistencies from location to location (e.g., take your shoes off here but not there, remove your iPad here but not there, etc.)
Introduces silly limitations — The best airport example is the simple bottle of water. Remember when all you had to do was take a swig of your water bottle to show TSA it’s a harmless liquid? I miss those days. The bottled water industry must be laughing all the way to the bank as we toss half-full bottles on one side of security and then have to buy new ones on the other side. In the book world, DRM means that lending a copy, something easily done in the physical world, comes with way too many restrictions in the e-world (e.g., two-week max, can only be done once in the life of the title, etc.)
I admit that I don’t have a solution to offer the airline industry. I don’t want to board a plane with a terrorist any more than you do. A pilot friend of mine made an interesting comment about this awhile back, though. He pointed out that one of the results of 9/11 is that passengers are no longer willing to be helpless victims. The shoe and underwear bomber events are examples of just how true this is.
In other words, passengers are stepping in to fill the holes that will always exist in airport security. I suggest we follow a similar approach in the publishing world, but take it a step further: Eliminate DRM and trust our customers to not only do the right thing, but also ask them to turn in anyone they see making/offering illegal copies.