DRM and the Command and Control Mindset

A Post in Support of the International Day Against DRM 2020 #IDAD

Len Epp
3 min readDec 4, 2020

Command and Control in Business Management, and in Your Stuff

Students of business management theory, and victims of antagonistic corporate cultures everywhere, will be familiar with the management style called “command and control”.

Typically, “command and control” systems are understood to have been borrowed by industry from the military. My understanding is that a conventional definition of the term goes like this:

Command and control is the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated individual over assigned resources in the accomplishment of a common goal.

That might sound like an obvious condition for a group to get a lot of things done, but in practice, it is a terrible starting point for thinking about how to manage a business, for a number of reasons.

For example, it more or less assumes an infinite supply of interchangeable workers. It also locks a business into structurally high employee turnover, because working in a command and control environment is a terrible experience. A volunteer military is something you join because you are willing to sacrifice yourself for it, and surrender your self-command for the sake of a good greater than yourself; that’s not true with some arbitrary business you unwillingly work for because you absolutely need a paycheck, or health insurance.

But the main problem with command and control is rarely addressed, because it has to do with a particular mindset that is attracted by this approach, which means it’s not the kind of problem that lends itself to conventional ways of thinking about systems.

A command and control culture selects for managers and executives who are drawn to the company not because of what it does, but because of how it does it. They simply enjoy the idea of being able to exercise authority over others and entertaining the thought that they occupy a superior position in an established hierarchy.

Eventually, command and control companies end up dominated by people for whom what the company actually does is completely orthogonal to what they are doing themselves. If you’ve ever wondered why giant brand-name corporations can fail in the breathtakingly stupid ways they sometimes do — or to be a bit more specific, why seemingly straightforward IT projects can fail spectacularly — that’s probably a sign that the people running it don’t just have zero domain expertise, but also zero domain interest of any kind.

This enjoyment of control over other people in itself, naturally extends to an enjoyment of control over other people’s things, too; indeed, the distinction between things and people essentially becomes meaningless in a command and control way of thinking (note the careful use of the term “resources” in the definition cited above).

And that’s really what’s at the heart of DRM, and the entitlement its proponents feel they have to control you and your things, like your ebooks, and whatever device it is you use to read them. The control of the thing — and your obedience — is the point.

It’s wrong to systematically treat everyone reading an ebook like they might be a thief, just like it’s wrong to use enterprise surveillance technology to systematically treat every employee like they might be deceiving their employer.

If we don’t push back on the effectively authoritarian use of technology that command and control types are always trying to get away with, we lose, both as thriving individuals, and as thriving businesses in the long run, too.

But if we do push back, we can win:



Len Epp

Startup cofounder. I like to write about tech, publishing, the interwebs, politics, and such.