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Hated and Broken

Everyone hates DRM, but not everyone will admit it doesn't work.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Published as part of our sister-site' widely-read weekly newsletter, the Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to newsletter subscribers.

John Riccitiello hates DRM. That's the rather surprising news from the Electronic Arts CEO this week - surprising not because there's anything particularly likeable about DRM, but because of his own firm's immense attachment to the widely disliked (and utterly useless) technology.

Admittedly, Riccitiello's comments go a lot deeper than that convenient headline. Despite the fact that he "hates" DRM, he goes on to attempt to justify it - comparing it with locks on your door or other necessary evils which we all require for security.

The comparison is utterly flawed. Locks and keys are indeed a trade-off which we make between convenience and security, but they are designed to protect our own security - not that of the company that sold us the door. There is a real, tangible advantage to the person being inconvenienced. That doesn't exist with DRM.

In fact, DRM is even worse. Not only is there no advantage to the end-user - in exchange for what can be pretty shocking inconvenience, which even Riccitiello confesses is "cumbersome". There's also no real advantage to the company responsible for inflicting this inconvenience, because contrary to Riccitiello's assertion, the DRM solutions used by the industry at large don't actually provide any meaningful protection from piracy.

The proof? Well, you can take the various charts and graphs presented by the companies trying to sell you DRM with which to lock up your products - almost none of whom even claim to be able to protect you past the first few days on sale, and frankly, even those claims are rather spurious. On the other side of the balance, you can put the fact that the Bittorrent "swarms" for Spore, EA's most recent and most controversial DRM-locked product, were among the biggest ever seen for a new videogame.

This alone makes another of Riccitiello's assertions look a little peculiar. He reckons that of those who kicked up a storm about Spore's DRM - which spilled from negative Amazon reviews into the specialist press, and even into the mainstream media in a small way - "about half" were pirates.

Why, exactly, would pirates care about Spore's DRM? If your intention was to pirate the game, there was a perfectly functional copy, totally unencumbered by DRM, sitting up there for you on Bittorrent - for free - on the day of launch. No pirate, with the possible exception of the person who originally uploaded the game to the Internet, ever saw Spore's DRM.

This is the essential, deeply uncomfortable truth about DRM which I and many, many other commentators have been banging on about for years. No pirate on the planet gives a damn about it, because they're happily using an unencumbered copy. The only people who ever see DRM - the only people who ever suffer the "cumbersome" inconvenience of these deeply flawed technologies - are your legitimate, paying, long-suffering customers.

Of course, it's not like the videogames industry stands alone in making this mistake. The film industry has spent years putting unskippable ads on the front of its DVDs, forcing legitimate, paying customers to endure lengthy, over-wrought messages about the evils of piracy. Had they downloaded the film from the Internet or picked up a pirate DVD, of course, they wouldn't have to put up with such nonsense. The irony is harsh, and continues to fly completely over the heads of whatever clueless individuals demand the inclusion of these ridiculous ads.

The music business, too, has made a similar error. You may recall that Sony and other companies spent ages experimenting with ways to prevent CDs from being copied onto computers - completely ignoring the fact that most people had upgraded their portable CD players to MP3 players. Those who legitimately bought music were being punished. Those who downloaded it from Napster (as then was) or other file-sharing services experienced no such restrictions.