An Economic Explanation For Why DRM Cannot Open Up New Business Model Opportunities

from the shrinking,-not-expanding,-the-pie dept

Continuing my increasingly lengthy series of posts on the economics of non-scarce goods, I wanted to take a look at an issue that I mentioned in passing earlier this week concerning the ongoing insistence among the entertainment industry (and the DRM industry) that DRM somehow will open up new business models. I'd like to explain why, economically, that doesn't make sense.

First, to clarify, I should point out that, technically, I mean that it doesn't make sense that DRM could ever open up feasible or successful business models. Anyone can create a new unsuccessful business model. For example, I'm now selling $1 bills for $1,000. It's a new business model (well, perhaps not to the dot coms of the original dot com boom), but it's unlikely to be a successful one (if you disagree, and would like to pay me $1,000 for $1, please use the feedback form above to make arrangements). However, for a new business model to make sense, it needs to provide more value. Providing more value than people can get elsewhere is the reason why a business model succeeds. So, any new business model must be based on adding additional value.

The good news is that value is not a scarce concept. Unfortunately, there are too many in this world who view value and growth as a zero-sum game. They believe that there's some fundamental limit on the possibility of adding value, and therefore, business models are about moving around a limited amount of value, rather than expanding it. It's the same fallacy facing those who have trouble understanding zero and infinity in economics. The economist Paul Romer's discussion on Economic Growth offers a concise explanation for this:
Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe. The cooking one can do is limited by the supply of ingredients, and most cooking in the economy produces undesirable side effects. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would eventually run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance. Human history teaches us, however, that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking. New recipes generally produce fewer unpleasant side effects and generate more economic value per unit of raw material.

Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding. Possibilities do not add up. They multiply.
Note that it's the non-scarce products, the recipes and the ideas, that helps expand the value of the limited resources, the ingredients. You expand value by creating new non-scarce goods that make scarce goods more valuable -- and you can keep on doing so, indefinitely. Successful new business models are about creating those non-scarce goods and helping them increase value. Any new business model must be based around increasing the overall pie. It's about recognizing that creating value isn't about shifting around pieces of a limited economic pie -- but making the overall pie bigger.

DRM is fundamentally opposed to this concept. It is not increasing value for the consumer in any way, but about limiting it. It takes the non-scarce goods, the very thing that helps increase value, and constrains them. Those non-scarce goods are what increase the pie and open up new opportunities for those who know where to capture the monetary rewards of that value (within other limited resources). DRM, on the other hand, holds back that value and prevents it from being realized. It shrinks the pie -- and no successful business models come out of providing less value and shrinking the overall pie. Fundamentally, DRM cannot create a successful new business model. It can only contain one.

If you're looking to catch up on the posts in the series, I've listed them out below:

Economics Of Abundance Getting Some Well Deserved Attention
The Importance Of Zero In Destroying The Scarcity Myth Of Economics
The Economics Of Abundance Is Not A Moral Issue
A Lack Of Scarcity Has (Almost) Nothing To Do With Piracy
A Lack Of Scarcity Feeds The Long Tail By Increasing The Pie
Why The Lack Of Scarcity In Economics Is Getting More Important Now
History Repeats Itself: How The RIAA Is Like 17th Century French Button-Makers
Infinity Is Your Friend In Economics
Step One To Embracing A Lack Of Scarcity: Recognize What Market You're Really In
Why I Hope The RIAA Succeeds
Saying You Can't Compete With Free Is Saying You Can't Compete Period
Perhaps It's Not The Entertainment Industry's Business Model That's Outdated

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  1. identicon
    Alexander, 10 Mar 2007 @ 5:39pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re

    The proof he's pointing to is evident throughout history: basic economics
    Yeah, well, whatever you say.

    As markets become more competitive price is pushed towards marginal cost. Going above marginal cost requires some kind of differentiations.

    There are many things that affect whether price is or is not pushed towards MC. Coke has stayed the same for a century, and its price is nowhere near the MC. Nor is the Big Mac, introduced in 1968. Bayer's Aspirin has been with us for 120 years, and its price is also nowhere near the MC. What about Malboro cigarettes? Budweiser beer? Kleenex towels? Swarovski glass? Smirnoff vodka? Pentium processors? For god's sake, even a 20+ year old Z80 processor is above MC. Not to speak about raw materials - Petroleum? Natural Gas? Gold? Marble? And what about some animal products? Ivory? Walrus skin? Marten Fur?
    The MC of an electronic ad slot should be 0 in Mike's world. How's that Google ads aren't free? Why an eBay listing isn't free?

    Every and each of these products is quite above the MC, for a variety of reasons, most of them not being the lack of competition.

    So sorry to be blunt, but please stop repeating the same mantras over and over and just learn something about economics first, and then start lecturing others about what is basic and what is not. Learn about opportunity costs. About entry and exit barriers. About how nonperfect markets work. About behavioural economics. About political economy and socioeconomic (because it just happens that economics isn't done by mindless robots in vacuum). About statistical proofs. And then come back and lecture me about "basic economics". If you (generically speaking) want to be taken seriously, your claims should be a bit more substantiated than just repeating over and over "I'm right. It's basic economics".

    Or if you prefer, don't learn anything and instead just do it and show that it really works, investing your own time and your own money. If everything is so easy, how's that the world isn't filled with zero-budget, free-content movie-producing billionaries? Instead, what we have is just a couple of movies, one of them has not even met a 5% of its funding goal for 1 year, and the other that took 7 years to make.

    There does not exist a MC=0, not in this reality, at least. Maybe in Mike's free bandwith, free energy, free failureless hardware, everyone's immortal, lawless universe, yes, but AFAIK nobody sans Mike lives there.

    Also, the fact that it costs 0 to break a law does not mean that MC=0. The fact that I can film you in your house making love and sell it as amateur porn does not mean that porn or your privacy has MC=0.

    Perhaps it wasn't well worded, but history is on mike's side.
    Well, every single crackpot I've met claims that history is on his side. As Carl Sagan once put it "They laughed at Copernicus, the laughed at Galileo, and they also laughed at Bozo the Clown".

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