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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The other side of DRM: developers are users, too

DRM. Officially, it means "digital rights management", but many will tell you it means "digital restrictions management". It's the thing which tries to keep people from copying music, movies, applications, books, and nearly anything else with a digital component in the modern world. No matter which side of this you're on, you've almost certainly had to deal with it at some point in recent times.

If you're on the side of hating DRM and related things, you probably think that everyone who uses it is a cold, heartless individual who only wants to hurt you. They want to make your life miserable and will go to lengths to do it. While that may be true for some, this is not universally the case.

This is a story about a developer who was on one side of the issue and then flipped to another, and what happened when he did. Names and certain other details have been omitted or changed where appropriate.

This developer wrote a program which would let you tune your flux capacitor. It was selling nicely, and it was a decent stream of revenue for this person. There was a web forum for software like this, and some people got to talking about his program. One of them chimed in and said that it had stopped working, even though he had paid for it. Further, the program was calling him a pirate outright, and refused to run.

After some back and forth exchanges, it was determined that this particular user (and customer) had done some non-traditional modifications to his computer system. They were modifications of the sort which allowed you to use "pirated" software if you wanted. While this user had paid for his copy of the flux capacitor controller, the whole rest of his machine looked like it might have been copied.

Trouble is, the application had a whole bunch of "copy detection" stuff in it. The developer had added many nontrivial checks to look for signs of being run on the same machine as these "cracker" tools. If any of them fired, it would send you to the piracy screen and abort.

So now he had a dilemma. This guy was a legit customer and user, but he was running the software in a hostile environment. While he had paid, many other people who would run that same software in that same sort of environment certainly had not. He thought about it, and realized that deep down inside, he would feel pretty badly if it had happened to him as a paying customer. He reversed his position on DRM in this program and shipped a new version which omitted the checks.

As soon as it went out, this happened:

Sales chart

Sales had been good and had been getting better, and then the DRM-free release came out. They immediately dropped and never returned to prior levels. The horse was out of the barn forever.

After this, he's not sure what to think. He tried to do the right thing but was burned by what happened.

This product no longer exists in any viable form. It's not quite a "buggy whip" situation since the need is still there, but the bottom has fallen out of this particular market. He had to move on to other things to pay his bills.

Put yourself in his shoes. It's a tough decision to make.