January 11, 2009KR BlogUncategorized

DRM: Exeunt, pursued by pirates

Question of the week: iTunes are going DRM-free. And Iceberg, the Scroll Motion app for iPhone books, is largely based on Apple’s model. What should publishers do now?

There’s a big ol’ debate over at the Federal Trade Commission, which will include topics you request by January 30th. The town meeting was not prompted by the recent changes Apple has made, but by a class-action suit filed by EA:

“Consumers are given no notices whatsoever that the FREE trial version of [Spore] includes Digital Rights Management technology… Consumers are given no control, rights, or options over SecuROM,” the suit alleges. “The program cannot be completely uninstalled.” The suit lists some of the potential side-effects of having the program installed on a system, including disruption of fire walls and “complete operating system failure.”

Just in case you need a reminder, DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. This is an encryption tool intended to protect files from being stolen. Cory Doctorow explained DRM beautifully in his recent book Content, which you can read for free in its entirety online or purchase on paper, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Here’s my rough, three-sentence summary of The Case Against DRM:

The purpose of DRM is to keep honest users honest; it cannot protect against sophisticated pirating. Economically, it is not worth the risk of limiting those who do invest in the product at the expense of “protecting” content from pirates (nor is it worth the cost of encryption for those investing in the product). If DRM limits the ability of the average user to access the information that user has paid for, that user will not invest in such technology again.

Trust is one of the most valuable commodities a publisher can possess. Since people are skeptical of new technology, I don’t think publishers can afford to risk the reputation of their digital media by investing in DRM.

In the introduction to Content, Doctorow gives this example: A mother who purchased a DVD for her children wants to make a copy on VHS so that if the children handle the VHS tape and it gets sticky or broken, they will still own this video. Of course, even though she is capable of connecting the DVD to a recordable VHS, the licensing is protected. This limits her ability to use the video she has already purchased.

I have a less exciting but equally relevant example. I purchased an external hard drive when I was a Kenyon student, feeling especially worried about losing my honors thesis at the tail end of my computer’s life. I had several hundred CDs, which I had purchased somewhere between $8.99 and $18.99 apiece, burned onto my computer. I copied these files onto my external hard drive. When my first computer crashed, as I anticipated it might, these files were safe on my external. Unfortunately, once I purchased a new computer, Windows Media Player would not allow me to access these files because it could not trace the license of each file. My access to these files is generally protected by a little policy called “fair use.” I was glad I didn’t lose access to these while I was in the middle of using an important file, like my honors thesis or, you know, a really absorbing read.

Imagine how frustrating it would be to lose access to your books.

Not to mention that the “protection” of DRM does not guarantee access to your files once you’ve purchased them. They can still simply disappear.

Now that we’re given the opportunity to invent the way publishing and distribution will work in the tech-literary world, we have the opportunity to anticipate what will be faster, easier, (possibly cheaper) and less daunting for readers. Apparently Japanese Anime publisher Gonzo is getting this right. Other publishers have discovered that releasing an entire book electronically prior to its publication actually improves sales. Check out Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig for more information.

Chris Meadows points out that there is no DRM protection for books on paper: photocopying and scanning, while illegal, is hard for book publishers to take action against. He also laments that it is expensive, easy to crack, limiting for the consumer, and ultimately ineffective.

I can’t believe we’ve made it this far into a blog entry about DRM without making a single pirate joke. I will try to continue this trend. Let’s use bears instead.

Once upon a time, we the people (first monks, then everybody else) wrote documents by hand. Wow, this is intense, we thought. Too bad we don’t have a back-up copy in case this one gets eaten by bears. Then suddenly, over the course of many decades, we create an advanced technological tool that allows us to produce an infinite number of printed copies of our document. Fearing that a few of these documents may also be eaten by bears, we stop letting anyone use the advanced technological device. This way bears don’t eat more documents, and no one has more access to the information we could have shared (after paying a reasonable amount to the writer and publisher).

That’s DRM, folks. A giant step away from progress. Exeunt, pursued by a bear.

If you have a less preposterous perspective on all this, please feel free to leave a comment (or write to the FTC and let them know what you think).