Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Is Steam good DRM?

Closely related to the concept of fair use is the concept of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM).  DRM is the stuff they put on digital media to keep you from copying it, or for that matter using it in an unauthorized way--such as fair use.

I've always felt that if DRM was "natural" anywhere it might be in the realm of software, where the media is, itself, executable code.  No need to wrap the data in an artificial wrapper of code when the thing itself is code.

Not to say that I think it's natural or a good idea, just .01% less repulsive.  Ultimately I think software and video games require the same level of freedom of use by its users.

But it is worth a case study of Steam, the online game distribution and DRM system made by Valve Software, the makers of the hit Half Life games.

The reason Steam is popular is because it actually enhances the user's experience.  You can play a game you have a license to anywhere--just log in and play.  You don't have to worry about a CD getting damaged or lost--there is no CD.  Much like Amazon's Kindle setup, it adds almost as much as it subtracts from the user experience.

Netflix is similar--you run their client and you can watch any movie they have for a low monthly fee.

I don't know whether to be disturbed or impressed by these trends.  In the case of the Kindle, users have a natural desire to read their puchased e-books on devices not manufactured by Amazon--requiring them to break the DRM on the ebooks illegally (even if it's a stupid, bad law).  

With Netflix, the relationship is only ever "rental" as opposed to "ownership" of the movies you watch--not that "owning" a movie seems to actually mean anything any more, since you cannot do with it as you please...what does it mean to "own", again?

With Steam, however, we're once again talking about "owning" a "license" to a game, but with Steam one still does have the advantages of convenience going along with the yoke of untrusted, closed source code running on your system.  This is a point of increasing contention for myself and other knowledgeable technicians as this trust is increasingly being abused.

And personally, I'm a fiend about my system resources--although I know that is unusual.  But I really hate to leave some daemon running when I'm not using it, cluttering up my process list.  Call me anal if you want, but my computer always runs really fast.

I think it's only a matter of time before Valve fucks up something bad with Steam--for example gleaning personal information from your hard drive and sending it back to home base, or some other such nonsense, and the whole house of cards will come falling down.  I mean, all they have to do to keep things going well is be perfect forever.

And that's the problem with all DRM schemes--you have to trust the person selling it to you forever.


  1. The most recent Steam survey scanned my hard drive and listed every single application I had installed. I have no idea how long Steam has been doing this, but it is unacceptable.

    1. It's be interesting if they open-sourced Steam.
      But then they couldn't scan your hard drive :-)