Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Are DRM and Enterprise Social Networking Compatible?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Are DRM (Digital Rights Management) systems compatible with the current growth in the use of blogging and social networking technologies that actively promote the sharing of information? They may not be, especially when we consider how companies are starting to use blogging and social networking technology to improve customer communications.

DRM is designed to prevent unauthorized duplication and distribution of protected works (such as digital music files). DRM is a technological fix that, among other things, prevents people doing things with works they might otherwise be able to do in the absence of DRM (such as, share protected audio files with friends, resell files without compensating copyright owners, etc.)

While reasonable people might disagree with how effective DRM technologies are in preventing large scale digital music piracy, one of the effects DRM can have is to create a defacto "community" of users who are potentially receptive to works digitally encoded in a particular way. A clear example of such a DRM-created "community" is made up of owners of iPods who use OS-X or Windows iTunes as the basis for personal media file procurement and management.

I’m not sure that the word "community" is appropriate here. Just because people share a common hardware/software/network infrastructure doesn't mean they really form a "community.” That's like saying that because I drive a Volkswagen Passat I am part of a "community" of Volkswagen Passat drivers. But perhaps your definition of "community" is more flexible than mine.

Admittedly, DRM (Apple's FairPlay) by itself is not the sole component of this community. There are also the hardware, the software, the operating system, the works that are purchased, transmitted, and managed, the networks, the PC's, the artists who create the works, the companies (including Apple, music companies, and others) who participate in the overall management, and the customers themselves. All work together to make up what is a very complex semi-closed distribution and compensation system.

Blogging and social networking technologies can be viewed as facilitating the voluntary formation (and dissolution) of communities consisting of people who share common characteristics and who are willing and able to share information about those characteristics and experiences. As corporations learn how to use such technologies to manage and/or support their relationships with customers, corporations have the potential for inserting themselves into -- and potentially becoming part of -- communities of customers in ways that extend beyond (and blur) traditional boundaries. Many folks (as do I) view this as a good thing.

Not all corporations accept the inevitability of incorporating blogging, social networking, and other Web 2.0 technologies into their customer communication infrastructure, as I have written elsewhere. But for those who do, the adoption of more open and collaborative communication practices with customers and users implies a view that the risks of such openness (and potential "loss of control") are outweighed by benefits such as early access to customer feedback, the opportunity to influence behavior through an impact on word of mouth, increased product loyalty, and reduced customer "churn.”

One way that DRM and corporate use of social networking technology in support of customer relations are similar is in the voluntary "opt-in” nature of both systems:

  • If you want to use an iPod with iTunes to buy music, you are free to do so – although you will be required to use FairPlay as your defacto DRM.
  • If you want to become a member of a company’s "community" of customers and take advantage of certain types of services and offers provided by the company to that community, you may have to register and become a "member" in order to take advantage of the offers being made.
However, a significant difference between DRM use and corporate use of social networking technology has to do with system incompatibilities.

  • Apple's FairPlay DRM software is not compatible with Windows' DRM system, and vice versa. So opting into one system carries with it the possibility that transferring works licensed  through one system for use on a device sanctioned for the other system will be cumbersome if not impossible.
  • Opting into one company’s "community building" implementation of blogging or social networking technology does not prevent one from participating in another company's – even a competitor's – system.

The move toward enterprise acceptance of Web 2.0 technologies promotes and encourages the sharing of information across traditional social and business boundaries, while DRM is designed to prevent uncompensated sharing from taking place.

Can these two models co-exist in a world where web based information sharing continues to grow? I don't see why not, but the following three things have to happen:

  1. People are aware of and respect intellectual property rights.
  2. The costs involved in sharing information are low.
  3. Artificial barriers to sharing of information across system boundaries are not raised.

It’s in respect to (3) that I see incompatibility existing between current implementations of DRM (such as Apple’s FairPlay) and Web 2.0 types of information and social networking.

Production, sharing, and consumption of information (including artistic works in digital form) are fast becoming the norm; witness Flikr's popularity and YouTube's growth. As we witness the rapid growth of network based transfer of audio, video, and image files, the concept of a proprietary and incompatible DRM system may be viewed as antiquated.

That doesn't mean that intellectual property is dead.  It may mean that the concept of a proprietary file structure or encryption/decryption scheme tied to one particular hardware platform is an outmoded concept that prevents people from communicating and sharing – even when they want to do so in a legal way.

In such cases, people vote with their feet. As long as artificial legal barriers to promote monopolies are not raised, the system that promotes sharing will win out.

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