paper and drm

February 1st, 2007

True story: I used to work at a big, dreary Western Massachusetts publishing company, and after a couple years, I was laid off, because the company was — and presumably still is — losing money hand over fist. They were (and presumably still are) having trouble competing as an information provider in the age of Google. I remember during my time there, the executive staff spent a lot of time fretting and ruminating about the idea of “protected PDFs”. Their idea was that they could send out these magic protected PDFs, and only the people they wanted to be able to print the PDF would be able to print them. Their biggest fear was the office copier — and it’s not an entirely irrational or unreasonable fear, as the picture I took above proves that this does, in fact, happen. Schools are some cheap bastards.

Now, aside from the fact that PDF’s aren’t very secure, the very idea itself of “protected information” strikes me as inherently flawed. Information, they say, wants to be free, and the print industry is having a real hard time with this. The print industry knows paper and ink, and little else. If you work in the print industry, my three pieces of advice are:

  • Stop thinking if you just protect your product the right way, no one will steal it, because no matter what you do: people will steal it. People will steal it with copiers and scanners and digital cameras. People will steal it with pencils and index cards. There is an army of well-organized, collaborative folks waiting to open up your information, and only one of them has to be able to do it for you to lose.
  • Open up your information, or open some rich subset of your information — and get it indexed by Google and everybody else, as soon as you can. Far worse than having your information copied here and there is having your information unavailable or unknown to your customers.
  • Start thinking about how you can start a dialog with your users and customers. Get them involved in your products, give them a stake, and start an actual community around your products — because in the very near future, that community will be your product.


6 Responses to “paper and drm”

  1. Originally published at Monkey Do, Monkey See. Please leave any comments there. [IMG I Am Gonna Copy And Remix]  Jeff Hobbs over at my sister publication L-Dopa has just written some piercing observations about publishing in the 21st century. Dig what he says because, whatever your moral stance, it’s true.

  2. Joshua says:

    Jeff, this little article is really good. I’m going to link over here from Monkey Do, Monkey See.

  3. […] Hobbs over at my sister publication L-Dopa has just written some piercing observations about publishing in the 21st century. Dig what he says because, whatever your moral stance, […]

  4. Ben Lehman says:

    that community will be your product



  5. Greg says:

    Jeff —

    I was just talking to someone who works for our common former employer the other day. He’s developing some interesting, innovative (for them) product ideas, but keeps getting stymied by the requisite executive response: How will we protect the IP?

    I gave him my prediction: They’re going to keep spinning their wheels (and probably keep having layoffs) until they stop worrying so much about people stealing from them. If you produce a good product — whether it’s baseball cards or interactive PDFs on teen pregnancy — some people will steal it and some people will legitimately purchase it. Theft has always been an issue. Businesses that treat it like some sort of “new” problem that needs to be solved — instead of focusing their resources on producing good products that people want to buy — are going to get crushed, I think.

    Good point about the community being the product. If I can just figure *that* part out, I’m gold. Maybe.

  6. Jeff says:

    I think the thing that people miss when discussing piracy is that the ~5% of people that steal your product were never really planning to buy the product in the first place, so it’s not as if you’ve lost a customer — actually, you’ve gained an advertising stream.