Hey, Pass it On!

Until I moved to Connecticut and embraced the car culture, I never really listened to the radio. Okay, during the few years in my childhood when my father found it more convenient to drive me to school than be ruled by the bus schedule, I memorized more than a few '70s radio hits. But even then, my dad was more likely to pop in a Doors 8-track than sit through mediocre tunes and endless commercial breaks. So early on, I developed what I call the "recommendation acquisition method." Within any given medium (film, book, music), I identified certain individuals who always knew more than I did or who would expose me to new genres. Then I noted what they were into at the moment or asked for a recommendation. In the case of movies, if they didn't have a loaner, I'd shell out for a rental or even pay to go to the theater but with books and music, I'd most often enjoy the pass-along of a used book or dubbed tape.

This wasn't quite law-abiding. Shame on me. Yet this method did not turn me into someone who never buys anything. In fact, my home is the picture of conspicuous consumption of books, movies, and music. If someone makes me a disc of a CD they really like, and I enjoy it, I'll often go out and buy—if not the original of the disc (to have the sleeve)—some other discs by the band. Same with books. If a friend loans me a book by a favorite author—and gets me hooked—I'll go out and buy several more of the writers' works.

I realize my habits aren't representative of all individuals who skirt the margins of copy right-and-wrong. But I don't think this sort of recommendation system is terribly uncommon. In fact, in magazine lingo, we call it pass-along readership. Some publications actually quantify pass-along readers as part of their ad sale calculations. I'm sure that, for books, music, and film—whose revenue isn't dependent upon per-view ad sales—pass-along doesn't have the same calculable value. But at the same time, film studios often do advance screenings of films in select trendsetting markets both to gauge audience opinion and generate word-of-mouth buzz to build attendance upon general release.

When asked which category I wanted to judge for the 2004 Codie Awards, I chose DRM because in the content industry it remains one of our most baffling challenges. At first glance, content DRM may seem like a manageably finite proposition: No distribution or use beyond the initial sale. But seriously folks...this simplistic approach may work well for some documents, but any traditional or electronic publisher worth his salt knows that even if this kind of finite distribution is doable it is probably not desirable. Thus, not only must DRM be powerful, it must be flexible: like Arnold doing yoga on the State House floor. Picture that implausible image—muscleman governor in lotus—and see how difficult the digital content DRM proposition is.

Maybe film and music would be happy with an infallible on/off switch solution, but I don't think it does econtent justice. When we've bandied digital distribution alternatives about within ITI, the first round of talks has included several votes for no printing, no email forwarding, no copy and paste, etc. In the same way that music studios fear CD duplication because it can reproduce the work's original quality, editors fear the facility of email forwarding to deliver, in its exact form, what they may be charging for. Or worse, the ease of cut and paste to present their hard-wrought work out of context, without attribution, or intentionally or unintentionally misattributed (um, stolen).

But what the music industry has demonstrated with its retribution tactics (that may or may not be working depending on the industry stat du jour), is that making the consumer the enemy ain't good PR. Look at the Pepsi commercials featuring teens prosecuted by the RIAA touting the soda company's free legal music download offering: These "thieves" are a cultural phenomenon—baby-faced Davids under siege by music-business Goliaths.

Software DRM makers seem to have gotten the "customer isn't the enemy" message loud and clear. Judging from several of the Codie entrants, software pass-along (um, thievery) is being reinterpreted as a sales opportunity. Say someone dupes a software disc for me to try a program. When I enter their serial number and password, instead of being able to install and use the program or being informed that the product is registered to another user and that I'm forbidden to use it, I'm welcomed and cordially invited to demo the product free of charge for 30 days. Thus, my interest in the software is recognized (given my willingness to skirt legality by trying out my friend's software), and, without any additional steps, I can install a demo version that will soon expire and prompt me to buy.

While I can't speak to the unhackabilty of these offerings, I respect their flexibility and perception of any user as a potential buyer. Distribution dynamics have changed and so must the digital content sales and protection proposition.