Trusting the consumer

“It’s called trusting the consumer.”

This was the final quote from Phil Wiser, Sony Music Chief Technology Officer, in a recent Reuters inteview regarding the release of Sony’s own copy-protection format- a format that for now can only be played on Sony portable players.

There are obvious consumer dissatisfaction issues that arise as competitive copy-protection formats evolve. Strategically, from the point of the view of the releasing firm, these formats temporarily lock the consumer into particular formats and music services by putting in place a unique switching cost – convenience. iTunes tracks can only be played on a portable player other than an iPod after you first burn the tracks to CD then re-compress the files into a more open format, like MP3. From the consumer perspective, however, this digital music experience is jagged and uncomfortable. Changing providers elicits a series of hassles.

In the paragraphs preceeding the claim to be “trusting the consumer,” Mr. Wiser went on to describe the elaborate efforts in place to invite the customer to purchase a CD with copy protection. Extra, copy-protected and compressed copies of each track are burned onto the CD. “ConnecteD” access to artist treats, like bonus tracks and concert tickets, are only available to those holding the real CD.

We have to ask the question: In the above scenario, wherein lies the part of the commerce equation through which the consumer is trusted? The CD is a closed experience. The portable tracks are copy-protected. Access to the special website requires the original CD, in hand. Unfortunately, the entire equation is all about not trusting the consumer.

Full on pirates will undoubtedly circumvent the copy-protection and the ConnecteD link. Within hours, these files will be distributed all over the world. Mr. Wiser even makes reference to these curious characters. Even without the special access links, buyers of pirated CDs will still find value in the music on the discs. Thus, the copy-protection in place cannot be aimed at commercial music pirates. It can only be aimed at consumers.

Copy-protection features, as presented by executives, are all about not trusting the consumer. We cannot blame executives for this opinion, becuase their underlying trust has been breached. Consumers already share files over peer networks, IM, email, burned CDs and shared hard drives. These actions run couter to the logic of the commerce contract, as this contract is understood by music labels.

However, by adopting a tone of trust in the public forum, while in fact not trusting the consumer at all, executives are likely to drive an even greater distance between the average customer and the label/artist. It would be much wiser to present the situation honestly, or solve the problem through different methods.


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