DRM and eBooks

Cory Doctorow (sci-fi author, blogger, and technologist) is a well-known Anti-DRM speaker. He even released a book of his writings on the subject, which is available via a CC-BY-NC-SA download. Now, this book, Content, is one of Doctorow’s that I haven’t bought yet, but that’s largely because I haven’t found it yet (hey, I like to buy books in actual bookstores), but even though I’ve read it, I still plan to buy the book to share, as well as support Mr. Doctorow.

We finally won the DRM war in relation to the Music industry. I can’t think of a single major player in the downloadable music game (except for game-related audio, like Rock Band Downloadable Content) who still uses DRM on any of their downloads. Now, the prices are still high, in my opinion, and the signs are not good in that respect, but the removal of the DRM is a huge win.

But that victory is only one of many that is needed. In the Video industry, you have Hulu trying to stop aggregators like Boxee from replaying their content (which would have still display Hulu ads), you’ve got the BBC using DRM on their iPlayer. But I don’t think that’s the next battle we’re going to win. Video is great, but the people who control the content are, in my opinion, far more stubborn than the Music industry ever was.

Like Doctorow, I believe the next front on this war that’s we’re likely to win is in the Publishing industry. eBooks are starting to become a really big deal. I think a large part of this is due to the fact that for a long time, eBooks simply weren’t convenient. They’re not portable, the displays for reading them were relatively low contrast compared to the printed page, and eyestrain was common. That’s changed in recent years with the advent of the e-ink display which powers (among other things), the Amazon Kindle.

The Kindle is a great piece of technology. Great high-contrast display. It’s light. It’s battery lasts for weeks. And it’s got a built-in cellular modem for over-the-air purchases and updates (all without a monthly fee). However, all these great features are, in my opinion, outshone by one rather ugly feature. It’s DRM. Recently, Amazon disabled the accounts of several users Amazon felt were returning books too often. Not only did this deny the users access to buying new Kindle books, but it also denied them access to already purchased materials that were already on the device. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but it seems likely that these users were downloading content, reading a few pages to decide if they wanted it or not (browsing, essentially) and returning some of it because they decided they weren’t interested at the time.

Now, the returns issue is an interesting one for the digital media world. On the iPhone, it’s almost impossible for a user to ‘return’ an app that they decided they don’t like, while on Android, if I buy an app, I can “return” it to Google within 24 hours. I actually really like how comic publisher iVerse has handled this on Android. Each comic runs about 7-8 MiB, which is a fair amount of the App storage on an Android phone (unfortunately). Due to customer complaints about not being able to have very many comics on their phones (since Apps can’t be stored on the SD Card), iVerse put together an application that allows you to ‘save’ your comics to the SD Card, and read them back using a separate, tiny app.

Of course, with Android’s 24-hour return policy, there was the fear that users would simply download the 99-cent comic, save it to their SD-card and ‘return’ the app, which would not include the content they’d saved out. As a compromise, the iVerse comics disable the save functionality for the first day you purchase them, allowing you to read them to your hearts content, but not letting you save them until you’ve passed your return window. Does this prevent you from reading and returning? No. But it at least prevents on-going access to the media if you do choose to return it. Now, I don’t know how iVerse’s solution to this problem stands up to piracy, and I’ll be investigating that soon, but it shows a reasonable compromise on the part of iVerse.

Back to eBooks, Cory Doctorow recently presented at O’Reilly’s “Tools of Change for Publishing” Conference about why DRM is a bad idea for eBooks. Below, is the embedded video of this presentation.

What I think the takeaway message from Cory’s talk is what he calls Doctorow’s Law:

Anytime someone puts a lock on something you own, against your wishes, and doesn't give you the key; They're not doing it for your benefit.

Ultimately, the DRM companies, who push the idea of piracy are trying really damn hard to lock you, and your customers, into their product. Up until recently, this was my problems with the iPod as a music platform (note: this is stil a problem with the iPod as a video platform). And more and more, the vendors are using this to promote lock-in. I don’t believe Steve Jobs when he says that he never wanted DRM on the iTunes Music Store. iTunes became big because it was easy and provided strong integration with the players, but iTunes was able to stay big because the DRM locked the users into iTunes. And Amazon is today trying to do the same thing with the Kindle. And Audible (an Amazon subsidiary) is doing the same thing with audio books. Don’t fall into this trap.

Doctorow ends his talk reasonably, beseeching the listeners to make sure the choice to use DRM on their content is their choice, and not the vendor they’re working with’s choice. In the end, I think that DRM will always be the wrong decision long term, and the decision to use DRM will always negatively impact my decision to do business with a company. I may still end up doing business with them, but if I can find the same (or at least similar enough) media from a non-DRM provider, I will always go with the non-DRM solution.