Doing Business: DRM and Piracy

Every couple of months, the topic of Digital Rights Management (DRM) rears its ugly head when I’m talking to a composer or new music enthusiast about the NewMusicShelf. How does NMS ensure the security of the composer’s scores once someone buys one? How does NMS limit the number of times a customer can print a score they’ve purchased? What does NMS do to make sure that someone who buys a score doesn’t email the PDF to someone else?

These all seem like reasonable questions on the surface: with today’s technology, there must be some way to ensure that a composer’s intellectual property is safe from piracy. But the truth is, DRM is expensive, time-consuming to implement, and ultimately ineffective.

I don’t mean to sound defeatist about the issue. Far from it. I think that piracy is something that can be rather easily overcome, but not by shackling customers with invasive, cumbersome, and potentially hazardous “security” measures.

DRM is a very difficult thing to implement for a variety of reasons. For one, with the constant changes in technology, any given set of DRM encryption or software is likely to become obsolete quickly, and with that obsolescence, the DRM-containing files are likely to become unreadable. So, a performer who buys a copy of my song cycle And He’ll be Mine in PDF format with DRM encryption may not be able to open that file when the next version of his operating system rolls out. Then, that performer is either forced to buy another copy, request a new copy from NMS or directly from me, or – most likely – write off the piece entirely and move on, remembering never to buy another score from NMS again because of the problems caused by the DRM. I’d much rather avoid all three of those situations, thanks.

When I started NMS, I did an obscene amount of research into DRM technologies. I thought that piracy was the biggest problem I might have to face. But the more I researched, the more I realized that DRM was a bigger problem than piracy ever could be. Not only because of the scenario I mentioned above. Many forms of DRM have the potential to damage the user’s system, or compromise their sensitive personal data such as credit card numbers. I encourage you to check out the DRM article on Wikipedia to read some DRM horror stories.

Sending a Message
The greatest drawback, however, that I see to using DRM to discourage piracy is the message that it sends to customers and to potential customers. By restricting their ability to use a digital file that they’ve paid for, I’m not only inconveniencing them, I’m also saying that I don’t trust them. I’m saying that I expect that the vast majority of musicians – my colleagues and friends – are dishonest, thieving, and completely untrustworthy. Consequently, I have to put security measures in place to keep them from being so despicable. I, for one, wouldn’t appreciate being treated like that. Instead, I prefer to use a strategy that I outline below, which has worked very well.

A Note on Piracy
When approaching the subject of piracy, we need to acknowledge that there are different types of people who engage in the practice for a variety of reasons. There are some people who just can’t afford the price tag on the digital files they want to buy. These people frequently end up actually buying the DVD/CD/album when they can afford it. Now, I’m certainly not condoning the behavior, but I do want to address this form of piracy more in-depth later on.

The other major type of pirate is the one who just flat-out refuses to pay for anything. They think that they’re somehow entitled to get everything for free. This type of piracy will happen no matter how hard we try to stop it, and can never be considered a “lost sale” because there was never even the slightest intention to shell out any cash in the first place. A sad truth.

A Practical Solution
So what can we do to discourage the bulk of piracy? The kind of piracy that stems from consumers being unable to afford the digital goods they would otherwise want to purchase? We make those goods affordable and available.

It’s that simple. By making a digital score easy to find and easy to purchase, we encourage people to pay for it. By slapping a prohibitive price on the score, we make it harder to afford, and more likely to be passed around without the composer being remunerated. The easier it is to find a score, and the more reasonably priced it is, the more likely people will be to buy it.

We should also ask ourselves: which is preferable, that our works are available and affordable, or that they’re prohibitively priced and (more likely than not) obscure? The artist’s greatest enemy is not piracy – it’s obscurity.

Nails in the Coffin
One of the “solutions” that composers who clearly haven’t put much research or thought into the issue offer is limiting the number of times people can print the score. Well, that sounds nice doesn’t it? You can only print it once, so you only have one copy. Would that we all lived in that happy fantasy land were scanners and copying machines were but a figment of our imaginations!

The mere fact of having limited the number of times a PDF can be printed assumes that people can’t take that printed copy, scan it back in to the computer, and be able to print/email/post it on various internet message boards to their black little hearts’ content. Or just bring it down to Kinko’s, run off a few hundred copies, and slip one under every apartment door on the Upper West Side. Now, of course I’m being hyperbolic in that last example, but control over the digital copy has no effect on any analog copies. How many of us have gone to the library and photocopied a song or a score that we wanted because we didn’t want to shell out the astronomical price set by the publishers?

By limiting the digital, we’re only inconveniencing the people who who want to buy our music. So let’s all stop punishing the very people who enjoy our work enough to give us their money.

Copying Licenses
During my research, I spoke with a number of composers, and asked their opinions on how NMS should proceed with trying to curtail any potential piracy. One composer offered what I think is the simplest, most straight-forward solution that shows respect to the customer while making it absolutely clear that they have certain clear obligations and limitations.

NewMusicShelf offers a Copying License to all customers that allows them to make sufficient copies of the score or parts that they’ve paid for to allow them to prepare and perform the piece – for their ensemble only. The license extends only to them and/or their ensemble and no further. They’re not allowed to email it to another ensemble, they’re not allowed to print a gazillion copies and pass them out higgledy-piggledy. As with any score, they may perform the piece as much as they like (obviously with the stipulation that they pay the proper performance royalty). But sending or making additional copies to other performers and ensembles is the same as photocopying a published score and giving the photocopy to someone else – it’s considered piracy.

I think that the Copying License is both simple and elegant. The customer is notified of her rights and responsibilities with regard to that score, yet isn’t shackled with ridiculous and potentially harmful encryption limiting her ability to use – completely legally – a score that she’s paid for.

Let’s drop these silly ideas about DRM, and worry instead about making our scores affordable and available.

As always, comments and discussion are welcome in the comments section below.

About Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski (b. 1982) has been hailed by the New York Times as a "dynamic vocalist" and a composer whose music is "distinctive and engaging". He has studied with composers David Del Tredici, Chester Biscardi, Daron Hagen, and Stephen Andrew Taylor, and has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Prairie Center of the Arts, and the Ucross Foundation. Dennis is the co-founder of the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series, whose mission is to present and promote new music by young and emerging composers, and the founder of, an online digital distributor of scores by self-published composers. (
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4 Responses to Doing Business: DRM and Piracy

  1. Pete Guither says:

    Extremely well said. The vast majority of people want to pay for scores, scripts, royalties, etc., as long as the cost is reasonable and the process is easy. Complex DRM structures discourage participation.

  2. Chris B. says:

    Obviously, I agree with all this. Something else that strikes me is that the personal connection entailed by buying music directly from the composer (or through NMS which is about as minimal a middleman as there could be) is going to make people think really differently about the score they bought. When people pirate things that are distributed through giant media conglomerate, I think they maybe partly do it because doesn’t feel like they’re stealing from somebody. When you’ve had some personal contact with the actual human who created the thing you’re buying, though, it seems to me like it’s got to be much harder to turn around and rip that person off by pirating their work.

  3. Jeffrey Quick says:

    We should be so lucky that people want to pirate us. Obviously, I’m comfortable with the way you’ve set this up.

    I don’t believe in intellectual property, as a concept. If something is property, it’s property in perpetuity; it doesn’t stop being property after a government-defined time (or worse, become not-property and then become property again, as in some of the Soviet works). That said, in an age where government cut special deals with all and sundry, a special privilege to control the revenue stream from my work seems fair to me, and I respect that privilege given to other creators as well. That may well be intellectually bankrupt. But I’d rather be intellectually bankrupt than literally bankrupt.

  4. Pingback: News › The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Print vs. Digital

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