Overprotecting your creation hurts you the most

How can I ensure my customer won’t share the video they purchased? Can I protect the PDF I sell to be shared only once? How can I lock my daughter in a high tower, so that no worldly harm befalls her?

The tension between sharing our creations and being paid was always tricky. But the digital world adds another layer of complexity – your creations can be copied and distributed also after the purchase, keeping you out of the loop of future profits.

A natural instinct is to seek the answer in the technology that permitted sharing in the first place – can I protect the content I sold, so that only the customer has access to it?

Yes, but you shouldn’t. Over-protecting your content focuses on extraction over providing value. Here are 10 reasons why (Digital Rights Management)[1] DRMs are a bad idea:

1 – It is just impossible to prevent sharing

Trying to effectively protect content against sharing is like fighting against skilled guerilla units in the digital jungle. Sure, you can deploy your defenses, but they will always find a sneaky way around them while you drain your resources.

  • You will use streaming service to gate-keep your videos, They can use a project similar to `youtube-dl` to download any video file.
  • You will block downloading images on the page, they can just take a screenshot.
  • You can password protect a PDF, they can use a „virtual printer” to generate a new, open one.

If you give a customer any way to access the content, that way can also be used to copy that content and/or record it.

This is a fundamental feature of the Internet. Content is meant to be easily reproducible and shared. The only way to win is to make it easier and more compelling to pay.

2 – You are treating your customer like a thief

Imagine if visiting your friend was like going through airport security. Did you bring any liquids? What’s that in your backpack? Oh no, your belongings are 300 grams too heavy, better pay for extra luggage!

Jumping through DRM hoops is sending a clear message to all your customers:

We don’t trust you. You have to go through this process because we think you may steal something. We’re watching you.

This message gets sent whenever a person who decided to pay you opens their purchase. It’s your biggest fans’ first experience with your product.

3 – People who steal are not your customers

Do you have a portrait of your ideal customer?

Is it a teenager sitting in a warez bulletin board all day and polishing his torrent workflow? If not – why are you focusing on them?

People who download loads of content are not used to paying for it. When they won’t be able to find a free copy of your content – they will steal from your competitor or resign before they open their wallets.

And if you don’t know who your ideal customer is – maybe you should focus on that.

4 – But they may become them

Sure Artur – but what about when somebody buys something and then gives away to all their friends?

  1. What do you think about sharing books? Borrowing a blender? Some sharing is healthy and natural.
  2. It actually benefits you.

Bootleg content is a customer acquisition mechanism.

The most successful Internet entrepreneurs build sophisticated sales funnels. For example, they would have many interactions with the customer before they buy:

  1. A visitor interested in your field finds your article online.
  2. After the second article, they sign up for your email list.
  3. You provide consistent value and build up trust.
  4. After a few months, you release a product and the follower becomes a customer.
  5. Profit.

Even if they try to “convert” their friends to trust you too, the friend lacks the relationship you have built. They didn’t receive your emails and they didn’t laugh at your corny jokes.

Demonstrating the full value of intellectual property requires giving it away. Once the friend sees the value you provide, they will either:

  1. Be blown away by the quality.
  2. Decide it’s not for them and they will never be your customer.

Both of these outcomes are ideal for you and save you considerable time in the signup funnel and marketing.

This is what trial period and discounts aim to accomplish, but they have side-effects. When you repeatedly discount, customers start treating the lower price as the ‘real’ one, and value the product less because ‘it must not be worth the full price’. Keeping a blind eye to questionable behavior gives you a way out. You can demonstrate how valuable your product is, without discounts that lead to price erosion.

People who “sneak onboard” often become customers themselves – and even the most loyal ones! The converted always are.

5 – You are making it hard to enjoy your content.

Open standards empower creators to build new tools or use the content in unpredictable ways. Things are better connected. These are the core assumptions under which the Internet was built. You will not be able to predict all the weird, fantastic, and inspiring ways your content will be accessed.

  • I may read your PDF on an iPad, iPhone, Android tablet, Kindle, or printed out,
  • I frequently save workout or yoga videos to watch while being offline in the garden or on the road,
  • I like to read the text in my Pocket or Kindle apps.

Any sort of „protection” breaks my ways of consuming your content and often makes it useless for me. Sometimes enough to give up on something I have paid for (and that is the reason I stopped doing yoga, your honor).

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I write about the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, focusing on remote work, online economy, and cognitive load. Every monday.

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6 – You are blocking people with disabilities from accessing it at all.

I can manage the inconvenience with some grumbling – however, not everybody has that luxury. Tools that people with disabilities rely on are by nature incompatible with any sort of content protection schemes. Content protection’s entire purpose is restricting access to the narrow subset of users and use cases.

Mind you, that you yourself will join those “people with disabilities”. You will get older, lose a little clarity in your vision, and suddenly the new sexy apps developed by 20-year olds in their glass palaces will become confusing and unusable.

Helping my grandparents navigate the changing digital landscape is a sad and sobering experience. Any additional hoop that you make them jump through may render your content inaccessible.

7 – You are turning your creation into a commodity

The best online businesses rely on fostering the relationship between you and your customers. You share some free content, they are more receptive to trust you with their hard-earned money. It’s a dance of mutual respect and the first sale is only a part. If they like what you are doing, they will return for more, or even support you financially.

DRM software turns this delicate relationship into buying a sack of coal under the watchful gaze of security. Not even a fistful too much! You are being watched.

You are signaling to your customer that this is a purely monetary transaction. They are not entitled to even sharing your work with a friend, because they would be violating rules ?. Oh, the rules.

8 – Are you really losing anything?

If you are selling digital products, what is your marginal cost? How much do you pay to create another copy of your PDF, video, software?

When your content is being shared, it is not stealing. You don’t lose your income whenever somebody downloads a copy. As I mentioned – people who are likely to download illegal copies of your work are either never going to be your customers, or they will because they had a peek.

9 – What is your true motivation for blocking the content?

What is the core motivation for trying to protect your piece? Is it some misplaced sense of justice or is it legitimately best for your customer?

If that content truly makes you proud and you believe it would help them – what is the best outcome if the customer does not want to pay? Is this motivation coming from a place of fear?

  • Fear of your work being „not good enough” to pay for?
  • Fear of the offer not being compelling enough?
  • Fear of not having enough paying customers to make it all worthwhile?

Fear is not a good place to create amazing content people are going to love. This mindset will drag you down and prevent you from soaring into creative skies.

10 – What do you choose to believe about people?

Do you really want to believe that people are only waiting for an opportunity to steal? Or do you want to trust them to appreciate the value you provide?

What can you do instead

  1. Focus on the relationship with the customer. I have written a little more about it in Your product is either hospitality or a commodity.
    I believe that all kinds of digital goods will be commoditized sooner or later. The only “moat” you can build is the customers’ trust.
  2. Put the energy you would spend on DRM into innovation and creating new products. Once your old one gets shared, you should be already releasing a new one.
    Subscriptions are an effective form of protection here – instead of sharing your content once, you drip the value to the customer – and they see the benefits of paying you.
  3. Sell more. Get more paying customers – after all, it’s about how many customers choose to pay you, not how many choose not to.
  4. Raise prices. Focus on the customer who is not driven to pay less, but the one who is driven to get more value. Paradoxically, more expensive products get downloaded less.

Now go, create, and sell.