DRM is not all that

I see why Digital Rights Management seems like a good idea.

It tries to turn digital products back into old-fashioned rivalrous, excludable goods, which would make the move to digital much less challenging. The trouble is that it's a bit of a disaster area.

First, because what can be encrypted can be decrypted.

The movie industry has been using pretty heavyweight encryption on DVDs for years. So how does it come about that the internet is awash in the latest US DVD releases before ever they're put out legitimately here? Because that encryption can be broken in a few hours by a piece of legally obtainable, free-to-download software. (Although it should be noted that it is a crime in many jurisdictions to use the software to break commercial DVD encryption.)

The fact that it takes even a few hours is owed entirely to the size of movie files. As processors get faster, decrypt times will get shorter. That's irrelevant to our industry, though, because ebook files are teenie tiny things. I'm pretty sure it takes less time to decrypt an ebook than it does to read the ISBN on the paper copy.

(I actually found a link to decryption software for ebooks while I was writing this piece, but I'm not going to connect you with it or the movie equivalent in case that's some ghastly legal faux pas. However, it's out there, and it came up on the first page of my search results. So that basically means anyone can do it.)

So what does DRM actually do?

It adds to costs. Somewhere between 1% and 5%, from what I understand. On top of VAT - why do we pay VAT on ebooks? - that makes ebooks more expensive than they have to be, which is bad, because people already expect them to be cheaper than they should be.

Notoriously, it makes it hard to archive ebooks, which frankly is infuriating. It can also mean a sudden crunch in which a standard is no longer supported and any content you've already paid for simply ceases to be accessible. You wouldn't buy a DVD on the understanding that if MGM went under, you couldn't watch Goldfinger any more, but with ebooks that seems to be what you're asked to put up with.

At the same time and not unrelatedly, DRM makes it impossible to move your books from one device to another, unless you crack it, which is against the law. In other words, DRM feels like an attempt to force you to pay for the same content over and over again.

All of these things unmistakably make ebooks worth less while pushing up the price.

If I sold you a paper copy of my book which was physically chained to a piece of stone so that you could only read it in your living room, or a copy which was printed entirely on red paper so that you couldn't photocopy it, you would

a) think I was insane, 


 b) feel that your book was not worth as much as it would be if you could carry it around. Of course you would. And you would be right.

My second example actually points up the other uncomfortable truth about DRM: even if it couldn't be beaten technologically, which it can, there's a brute-force workaround which is utterly trivial: people can scan books. Wired magazine featured a device a while ago which could be constructed for $300 and took half an hour to scan a book. More recently, there was one which cost $20. Image-to-text software is included in a lot of desktop scanners, if you can be bothered, by why would you, when most devices will display a .pdf file?

To use a military metaphor...

The question is whether to abandon the emplacement because it is untenable or hold it for a while longer while retreating to a more sensible and sound position.

Even some advocates of DRM concede that in the medium and long term it's not much good. The only issue is whether it can protect a new market for long enough to get it established. You could, perhaps, look at the evolution of the digital music market - which is not a perfect equivalent - and make that case. Or you could look at the data and say that DRM had to be abandoned and was - along with a lack of content availability owing to hesitation (sound familiar?) - the principle reason for people going to non-legitimate sources in the early days and thus establishing a habit of getting their music from infringing sites rather than industry ones.

A word about interoperability...

Interoperability is a sort of DRM magic wand. it doesn't solve the problem that DRM can't actually stop people from copying files, but notionally it solves the one about the encryption preventing you from moving your purchased items between devices. A fully interoperable DRM standard would allow users to buy a book on the Kindle, decide to read it on a Nokia while on the bus, then come home and project the whole file onto the wall from a desktop computer. 

Great! Let's go!

The thing is, I'll believe it when I see it. There's already a mess of standards out there, and if you want an example of the problems of making software function properly even across variants of the same operating system, let alone different ones, take a look at what's been happening with Google's Android system. Different handset manufacturers have introduced different handset layouts, different tweaks, and the consequence is that not all Android apps work on all Android phones. Granted, this may be getting better for Android, but it's still indicative of a real problem.

So interoperability is five years in the future, and perhaps always will be - even assuming you can get everyone to agree on which standard should be the standard standard, which, frankly, you won't, or certainly not before it becomes a meaningless conversation.

So why is everyone using DRM?

Well, actually, not everyone is. But most are, and as to why, I can only speculate. I came to the book world relatively recently, and I don't know the players or the arguments as well as I'd like to - and of course, I haven't seen the numbers which are on the CEOs' desks. If we were talking about the movie industry, though, where I used to work, I might suggest a bit cynically that DRM was still used because:

a) the people the industry has hired as consultants also sell DRM for a living

b) the players have spent too much on DRM to admit that DRM isn't buying them anything except grief, and anyone who says this was a mistake will have to account to the board for why they blew hundreds of millions of dollars on it

c) they have done deals which obligate them to use DRM and now can't untangle themselves from those deals without incurring further costs

d) it feels good to be doing something even if that something isn't working

e) they don't know what else to do, and they're terrified that if they do nothing they'll be destroyed.

Fortunately, as I've said before, book people are not only sexier and cooler than movie people, they are also wiser. So we won't get into any of those situations. We'll find a better way...

The best alternative to DRM is to make the experience of buying and owning an ebook superior to the experience of not-buying one.

About which, more anon.


Further reading:

DRM holding back ebook growth (PC World)

The Perils of DRM Overkill for Large Publishers (Teleread)

Adobe's DRM vexes ebook owners (Computerworld)

Valve's Steam is game DRM done right (Teleread)

Piracy may not be killing music after all (Teleread)



The only reason

why I recently began to actually buy ebooks is, that I am able now to remove the DRM. Without this capability I never ever would buy any ebook or other digital media.

I tried this some years ago with M$-lit files, they all got lost due to DRM complications. Since then I didn't buy anything where I wasn't sure in advance that I could successfully remove the DRM.

Just make DRM irrelevant!


Our subscription, electronic books make DRM completely irrelevant. Whatever one might pirate could be out of date a minute later. So let em pirate. It makes no difference whatsoever. Got some VC? :)




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