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

What the Heck is "Social DRM"?

What the Heck is "Social DRM"?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Published April 15, 2008

When I first heard the term “social DRM” in the context of e-book anti-piracy efforts — the link is to the RSS feed of my bookmarks tagged “socialDRM” —  I thought it referred somehow to group peer pressure not to copy files without permission.

The idea is that “social DRM” — actually, it’s a type of watermarking — is a less intrusive type of DRM (Digital Rights Management) than intrusive approaches that tend to penalize legal users without seriously impeding the activities of serious pirates. It involves the incorporation of unobtrusive (or surreptitious) ownership identity information into a downloadable file so that the origin of the file can be tracked if necessary. I guess this is supposed to reduce the prevalence of file sharing somewhat while reducing the usability and accessibility problems associated with “standard” DRM.

The blogospheric discussions (see the RSS feed linked above) about cumbersome and incompatible e-book DRM systems are eerily reminiscent of past digital music discussions. Ironically, music DRM seems to be fading, while incompatible e-book DRM systems seem to be still supported by various vendors.

While the market for e-books such as Amazon’s Kindle platform is still quite small, I don’t think the reason for the small market size is due to incompatible DRM systems. I think it’s just that, for certain types of books, physical paper editions are just to comfortable and easy to use and it’s going to remain that way for many years to come.  Incompatible DRM for e-books, though, will probably fade as it is fading for music.

Still, I can see DRM being applied for certain very expensive types of textbooks where publishers need to recoup massive investments in graphics, editing, and auxiliary electronic products.

Ultimately, I agree with NRK’s statement (thanks to Command Line for bringing the “NRKbeta Doctrine” to my attention):

The only way to control your content is to be the best provider of it.

In his podcast Command Line doesn’t really go into detail about what “being the best provider” really means. Interestingly, one of the things that an artist or publisher can do via a web based delivery system is to use the power of social networking technology to develop an ongoing relationship with the customer/user/purchaser. It is possible then that the strength of that relationship will militate against the customer seeking out unauthorized or pirated copies from sources that don’t provide the same relationship benefits. One might then interpret the term “social DRM” in explicitly “social” terms.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald. Can I help you adapt the content and ideas you see here for your own organization? Contact me at

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