Like DRM, only sinister-er?


I’ve been having conversations today about a ‘non-DRM solution’ to filesharing. This conversation comes up pretty regularly, actually. I’ve now been approached by no less than three companies that would like me to examine, and perhaps endorse their own system.

Each time, it involves watermarking files. The idea is that it is completely invisible (and inaudible) to the listener, but tracks where the mp3 (or some new proprietary audio file) comes from, and in most cases, information about the person who originally bought it.

I’m sorry, but no. That’s not a DRM-free system of anything. That’s Digital Rights Management by definition – only this time it uses surveillance, rather than the more clumsy and obvious ‘reach in and break your computer’ tactic of older TPM (technical protection measure) systems.

It’s just as bad. Probably much worse.

The ‘file sharing is bad’ myth
But before I explain, I should say there’s a questionable presupposition behind the technology: that file sharing is a problem that has to be solved.

I’m not suggesting that there’s been no financial loss to legitimate businesses and even some artists in part, through the use of the technology. To claim otherwise would be naive or ingenuous.

It’s just not the terror that it’s been painted as, by any stretch of the imagination (we’ve had this conversation – and at some length), but it is a factor that needs to be considered when planning your commercial strategy.

However, I’d bet money on the idea that far more artists and record labels have been advantaged by file sharing than have been disadvantaged.

So – rather than ‘how do we solve (ie: either eradicate or earn money from) file-sharing?’ – far more sensible would be to ask: ‘Given file-sharing as part of the reality in which I plan to operate, what should my strategy be?’

The key issues
When you propose watermarking music files as a way of ensuring that rightsholders get paid appropriately for their works, you raise a number of important issues.

* Who gets the information?
* Who pays for the re-encoding?
* What happens to the billions of un-watermarked files circulating?
* What bureaucracy needs to be formed to administer this?
* Will the same checks and balances still be in place 20 years from now?

And so on.

I’m all for artists and labels making money. But ultimately, replacing incompatibility with surveillance is just another way of trying to extend and reinforce a status quo that needs to be radically transformed – not policed and protected.

So – please stop asking me if I’ll lend support to your ‘dream of a DRM-free system that ensures that rightsholders get rewarded while honest people can do what they want to with their music’.

I applaud what I assume are your good intentions – but what you’re proposing is at best wrong-headed and entirely impractical – and, at worst, outright sinister.

16 thoughts on “Like DRM, only sinister-er?

  1. Steve says:

    I’ve noticed that a light goes on with artists when you suggest that instead of seeing file sharing as ‘CD theft’ they see it as ‘radio’ – free radio, radio that doesn’t require pluggers or fluffers to get you played… Lots of them get that. Labels, clearly, less so.

    Musicians want to be heard, but are still hearing the narrative about the digital world through the mouthpiece of the CD-selling industry. So glad that the word is now getting out to them. Good work, Mr Dubber. Quality ideas and writing, as always.

  2. Pete Ashton says:

    I think the key thing here is:

    “What bureaucracy needs to be formed to administer this?”

    A: One that will cost a fortune and not be sustainable.


    “Will the same checks and balances still be in place 20 years from now?”

    A: No. I’d give them 2 years at most.

    Since this “solution” doesn’t affect my ability to play the music and simply consists of some soon-to-be-useless retail data I don’t see this as a problem.

    Actually, since this is rather like slipping the receipt in a record sleeve it could have archival importance in the future. So maybe it’s a good idea after all?

  3. Marius says:

    Creepy peeps!

    I’m glad to see this article, thank you Andrew.

    There will always be a way to get around the DRM tech/surveillance which means these companies are wasting their money.

    What’s the purpose? Why do you want the data? To give your users a better experience or to go after the “bad guys”?

    I see this way…

    The “bad guys” won’t last long and by spreading your music they spread your name (they don’t make the music). So, in the long run you stay in business not by ODRM (Orwellian!) and litigation. You stay in business because of the quantity and quality of the work you do on a constant basis.

    File-sharing, the good-bad-and-ugly of it, as you say is here to stay.

    Accept reality rather than frustrate yourself with the illusion of control.

    Find creative ways to work with reality and form your strategies to take advantage of the new way people do what they do.

    Marius van Dyk

  4. Dubber says:

    @Pete – yep… only, the record shop keeps the receipt, writes my name and address on the back of it and sends it to the label, where it accumulates further information about the other shops I go to, where my children go to school and whether I’m Islamic or not.

    And if I take the record round to my friend’s house, alarms sound, my receipt turns bright red, and is duly forwarded to the music police.

    Otherwise – an archival treasure…

  5. Chris West says:

    Good work and well said Dubber

    Any form of DRM is pointless and is only a way to stop potential new ears hearing your music. It’s as simple as that.

  6. Milton says:

    “So – rather than ‘how do we solve (ie: either eradicate or earn money from) file-sharing?’ – far more sensible would be to ask: ‘Given file-sharing as part of the reality in which I plan to operate, what should my strategy be?’”

    ‘Nuff said.

  7. Jon Dickens says:


    Great feature – nice to read a clear-headed perspective on these matters. I agree with Chris West on this point.

  8. bruce says:

    ‘Given file-sharing as part of the reality in which I plan to operate, what should my strategy be?’
    Great question. Answers anyone?

  9. Dubber says:

    @Bruce – my position on this is ‘it depends’.

    Who’s your target audience? What do they do? What sort of music do you make? Where do you play? What have you recorded? What are you currently doing online? What’s interesting about you?… and so on.

    The reason I do consultancies with musicians and independent music businesses is to help them work out what their answer is.

    The answer that I’m deeply suspicious of is the one that comes dressed as ‘the new business model’ – as if there’s a single cookie-cutter template solution for all music businesses.

  10. Chris West says:

    @ Bruce

    You could set up a torrent of your music as full audio or high quality mp3s.

  11. bruce says:

    More questions! Thanks, this would help in formulating my own ‘the new business model’ A business model is a tailored solution. So, what you resit persists. Or something like that. It would appear that there is allot of opportunity in working with file-sharing as opposed to against it. File-sharing as a reality might be a given in planning your music business strategy. Thanks,

  12. Dave Carter says:

    2 points and a question

    1) watermarking isn’t only being used for music (currently being used for film) and is likely to be expanded to anything trafficked over open networks that someone wants to track

    2) while there are many valid reasons for doing this (download / p2p metrics tied to geography to help a band plan their next tour for example) the only possible application of watermarking is increased surveillance and closer scrutiny of data traffic – especially over p2p networks.

    Without wanting to get all conspiracy theorist on your post – many of the ‘new business models’ for the music industry, certainly those using water-marking, rely on consumers giving up some level of privacy. Not sure how consumers will react to this but history suggests not well.

    Now wouldn’t it be interesting if someone came up with a scheme whereby, rather than watermarking, consumers would WANT to encode their whole music collection in a new format that could automatically describe and search the sounds and music contained within a file?

    How familiar are you with m-peg7 Andrew?

  13. Dubber says:

    RE: MPEG-7 – I wasn’t familiar with it at all, but I looked it up.

    Interesting development on metadata, which I’ve long held is an important area for growth in digital media. I wrote about an idea along these lines – embedded and online XML data in music files – a while back:

    Onliner notes

    …and the importance of metadata for music in general:

    Should I do something about metadata?

    Good to see there’s been development in that area. Thanks for the tip.

  14. Dave Carter says:

    Important bit about m-peg 7 development is the automatic content analysis and embedded descriptions for musical works – currently being employed in query by humming services such as Shazaam.

    This lets someone ‘match’ input snatches of melody / rhythm / etc to a database of encoded files.

    Some of the innovations around the M-peg 7 standard mean that files don’t have to be watermarked to be tracked across p2p (and other) networks – all you need are some surveillance bots and a big database.

    Cool technology that has the potential to be sinister-er-er…

  15. chuck says:

    I like this idea. I can track who’s doing the most promoting, er, /sharing/ of my band’s music, and once in a while identify someone who’s done a lot, and send them a cool free t-shirt or something.

  16. When people (almost always record label people) start to ask those questions about stopping or controlling filesharing, I always reply by aking them the following question:

    “Does the name King Canute mean anything to you”?

    Facetious I know, but I find it hard to resist. The fact is that Dubber is quite right. People are asking entirely the wrong questions, questions which are framed by their knowledge and experiences of how things have been done to date, not how things are now.

    A chap called Ian Rogers from a company called Topspin says it best: “The physics of media have changed”. We therefore need to think in a different way.

    I am not suggesting that this is the best way, or the only way to look at filesharing, but for what it is worth, this is how I view it.

    People are going to visit filesharing sites and download music for free. No point wasting any more brain space worrying about that, but here’s a radical idea. If you knew who those people were and were in a position to talk to them (with their permission), would that not be a powerful thing? Could you maybe encourage them to come to your shows, buy your t shirts, read your blogs, subscribe to your fan club..? Our experience says yes you can.

    If you could find a way to extract the email addresses of some, or even most of the people who download your tracks, you would be taking a huge step towards building a community of people who appreciate your art, and guess what? You can.

    Music glue ( provide a free service where you upload your music in whatever resolution you like (the higher the better) and they then distribute it to all of the main filesharing sites instantaneously. The really clever bit is that when someone goes to download the track they receive a text, audio or video message saying for example say “Hey, we know you are downloading this track from XXX site. That’s totally cool, but if you are interested in the band give us your email address and we’ll keep you up to date” or whatever.

    This way you are able to harness the data traffic and build yourselves a fanbase.

    As I say, just an idea.