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Executive Report - By Thomas Baekdal - May 2011

Publishers, You Need a DRM

As a publisher asking people to buy or subscribe your content, you need to add a DRM. Not one that discriminates, limits or restrict your readers. But one that identifies the content to the individual subscribers.

Digital publishing is growing up. It is no longer just another form of marketing to get people subscribe to the print issues. Digital newspapers and magazines have to stand on their own, make their own money, and cover their own costs.

We are now seeing some of the early experiments with paywalls, paygates, premium apps, subscription packages etc. And while they all work in very different ways, they are all based on a single concept: Get people to pay for the content.

What isn't going very well is sharing. Sharing is a fundamental element of the internet. It is how it works. On the internet, there are no big shopping malls that you can move your product into. Every site is an island on its own. Even on the big social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, each profile is an island.

The only reason why people find so many different things is because of the link. The link connects everything together. It's via a link that you find a Facebook page. It's via the link that you see the updates in your stream. It is via the link you found that amazing blog post you just read.

This is something that the traditional media world seems to have a really hard time understanding. Digital publishing is a mix of publishing + sharing + links. Remove any one of these, and your digital publishing model will fail.

Once you start to charge money for your content, the internet also turns into a bit of a minefield. A lot of people don't want to pay and the digital culture often encourages people to steal. As you know, we call this piracy.

But what is also important to know is that there are three kinds of piracy.


The first kind is piracy is the result of "injustice." One example: Ever tried buying an ebook only to be greeted with the message that you are not allowed to because you live in the wrong country?

Fred Wilson experienced this when he tried to buy a music album a while ago, and his reaction was to revolt against it. He became a pirate and downloaded the album through unofficial channels.

Note: You can find many other examples in "How to Really Stop Piracy."

This is very natural reaction. When you discriminate against a certain group of people, they revolt-and online that means they turn to piracy.

The music and movie industries are learning this the hard way.

You are not allowed to discriminate against people. You are not allowed to delay or disrupt the experience so that you can favor a certain group or a specific channel. It is very much in the same way as an owner of a restaurant is not allowed to prevent black people from eating at his establishment.

As a publisher, it is vital that you do not ever end up discriminating against a certain group readers. Some news outlets are already making this mistake - like how The Daily can only be purchased by people in the US.

The internet is global by default. You cannot restrict it to a country. You can target your content strategy to a specific niche (like what people in a certain country might want to read), but it is discrimination to prevent people outside that niche to buy it.


The other area is when companies tries to force people to use their product in a certain way. Like when the movie industry says that you cannot rip a Blue-ray movie so that you can watch it on your iPad.

Again, you do not have the right to restrict how a product can be used. People have paid for it, so you no longer own it.

The result is (again) that people revolt by turning to piracy. They find that by simply downloading the movie, they get the product they want, without the restrictions and limitations imposed by a specific format.

In both of these cases, the "victim" is the consumer - not the publishers. It is the victim's basic right to be treated fairly that is being violated.

The result is a very nasty culture, in which people will simply stop paying altogether and just steal it in the first place. Why even expose yourself to discrimination and restrictions, if you can just download it in some other way.

Pure theft

The third type of piracy is just pure theft. This is when you are not restricting or discrimination i any way, but some people still find a way to hack into your system to get it for free.

Or when someone decide to republish your con ten - something that has happened to me many times. A blogger will take the RSS feed, and automatically republish all my articles on their own blogs, put their own ads around it, and even replace my name with their own.

That is just theft.


The solution to stop piracy is not to prevent sharing or the use of links. If you do that, you will destroy yourself, much in the same way as the music industry is destroying their market.

Instead, the solution is two things. First you need to make some kind of separation between free vs. paid-for content. The problem with the New York Times metering model is that all content is free for somebody-and everything is free from some sources. How can you tell what content is paid-for and what is not?

The other part is to employ a DRM to all your articles. Not the kind that is used by the music, movie and (in part) ebook businesses. You do not ever want to create a DRM with the purpose of restricting or discrimination against your readers.

The DRM has only one purpose: To identify the subscriber.

Take an ebook. The wrong way to use a DRM is to restrict it to a specific platform, system or device. Like when Amazon is restricting Kindle books to Kindle devices or apps. Do not make the same mistakes the music industry made.

The DRM should instead just be a simple identifier, showing who purchased the book. Then, if it is uploaded to a file-sharing service, you can easily identify who did it. Even if a hacker where to remove the identification, you would still know if it is illegal or not.

Baekdal Plus actually has built in DRM. Not one that restrict or discriminates in any way. You can read the articles anywhere you want, on any device, in any app etc. But each plus article contains identifying information about the subscriber.

It starts with the URL. Each Plus URL contains 2 things. The URL for the page and the DRM code identifying the subscriber. You need both to read the article. Remove or alter any of these, and the article goes into lock down mode, redirecting to the free intro.

Here is one example of a link shared by Avinash Kaushik on Twitter (thanks Avinash!!):

Note: This is an actual shared Plus link. Remember to say thanks to Avinash for sharing it with you for free!

This way, subscribers are free to share the articles any way they want. But if someone decides to create a "Baekdal Plus: Indexed." I know who did it and I can lock them down.

Each Plus article also contains three other levels of identifying DRMs. One for RSS, another for copy/pasting, and a third for the images. Neither prevent sharing (which everyone is allowed an encouraged to do.) It doesn't restrict or limit the content in any way. It only identifies.

My upcoming ebook (which will be free to Plus subscribers) will also contain an identifying DRM. Each "copy" will be individually linked to each subscriber. It doesn't restrict. It comes in a completely standard ePub format so that it can be used on any device. But if someone decides to upload it to a file-sharing service, I know who did it.

As a publisher asking people to buy or subscribe your content, you need to add a DRM. Not one that discriminates, limits or restrict your readers. But one that identifies the content to the individual subscribers.

Another advantage of this is that you can use the DRM as a social tool. When subscribers share a Plus article on, the information from the DRM allows me create a nice social sharing bar telling people who shared this article (with a link to their Twitter profiles.)

This way, when people share something, they also get the full credit for it - which might help that individual subscriber to get more followers and a higher personal brand value.

That is the true power of a DRM. It identifies and enables!

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What is Baekdal?

Baekdal is a magazine for media professionals, focusing on media analysis, trends, patterns, strategy, journalistic focus, and newsroom optimization. Since 2010, it has helped publishers in more than 40 countries, including big and small publishers like Condé Nast, Bonnier, Schibsted, NRC, and others, as well as companies like Google and Microsoft.

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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