What’s Wrong with Publishing? #9: DRM

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

Back a few weeks ago, one of the comments on this blog said, in part:

here’s the cold, harsh truth: just about anything you put out there to sell can be duplicated with today’s technology.  CDs and DVDs can be ripped and burned, golf clubs can be replicated, clothing, watches, designer handbags can all be copied.  and books can be scanned, turned into PDFs and  distributed freely.

(and don’t think DRM is going to stop -anybody-)

instead of trying to angrily attack a multi-headed beast that grows another head or two for every head you might manage to lop off, or, worse, refuse to go into new technologies for fear of getting ripped off, i think it’s best to acknowledge the potential problems and continue moving forward.  i seriously doubt the people who are either pirating or using pirated versions of anything would likely be paying customers anyway.

The comment was made by a fellow named Tom Franklin, who made many excellent points both on that blog and the one that followed. You should check out what he said here and here (under the handle “fivecats”). For now, I’m just going to discuss his comment above. And, yes, I agree that the existence of piracy should not make us shy to enter into the digital realm. Fear of piracy makes sense when you’re an eighteenth century galleon flying the Spanish flag in contested British waters, but not when you’re a twenty-first century author.

It’s inevitable that a discussion of the future of publishing is going to involve, at some point, DRM (digital rights management, for those of you not hip to the lingo — basically, the electronic copy protection that prevents you from copying digital media and sharing it with the world). Everything sold online attempts — at one time or another — to restrict its use via some kind of DRM. DRM has been with us since even the VCR, when the hated “Macrovision” system allegedly prevented people from copying videotapes (and also, most of the time, made the protected tapes damn near impossible to watch). These days, it doesn’t take long for the crowd-sourced wisdom of the Internet to crack any DRM out there, whether it’s copy-protection on a DVD or even the security “system” built into the operating system on Apple’s iPhone (which is now routinely broken within days of Apple’s updates).

So, Tom’s comment “don’t think DRM is going to stop -anybody-” is not only prescient, but also — so far as we can tell — objectively true.

Except for this: DRM does stop people. All the time. It stops people who can’t be bothered.

Yes, it is almost obscenely easy to crack DRM these days. Hell, there’s even a website that can jailbreak an iPhone with a single swipe of the finger, if you’re so inclined.

“If you’re so inclined” is the operative phrase here.

My feeling is this: Remember the movie In the Line of Fire? John Malkovich tells Clint Eastwood that it’s no big trick to kill the president — you just have to be willing to trade your life for his, is all. What this means is that to someone willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, there is no obstacle high enough. The same holds true for piracy and digital rights management: To a truly determined pirate, no amount of DRM will stop them. But you know what? Most people who don’t like the president aren’t willing to trade their lives for his, so if you make it minimally difficult to pull the trigger…they won’t. So I acknowledge that we’ll never stop piracy, but if some barriers can be put up that will stop some pirates, I’m happy.

Why? Why do I care? Well, to me it’s very simple: It’s wrong.

People get twisted into philosophical and ontological arguments about piracy, discussing whether or not it helps sales or hurts sales, commenting on the impossibility of stopping it, etc. But for me, it’s very simple: Pirates are stealing from me. And, yeah, I can’t stop them all, but if I catch someone picking my pocket, you can be damn sure I’m going grab his wrist and not let him go until he’s cuffed. It’s not that complicated. I don’t make a career out of looking for pirates, but when I notice my work pirated, I take the appropriate steps. Not because I’m some old-school traditionalist, not because I hate the freedom of the internet, but just because it’s wrong. I did not give them permission to share my work and they are doing it anyway. Period. End of story.

I genuinely don’t understand why people don’t get this. Yes, a determined crook can pick my lock, get into my house, and steal everything I own. Does this mean I shouldn’t bother locking the door at all?

Right now, there’s nothing to stop me from taking my favorite book from my shelf, photocopying it a hundred times, and giving it free to my closest one hundred friends. Nothing except for the cost and hassle. And, of course, the fact that doing so is both illegal and unethical. That is the “DRM” of the analog world, and no one ever complained about it. “Why do publishers make it so difficult for me to get the book flat on the photocopier? They should publish books spiral-bound so that I can make photocopies more easily!”

Now that it’s easy to make copies of digital products, I don’t see anything wrong in throwing a couple of roadblocks to copying them.

Now, where I have a beef with DRM is here: When I buy a book, I own that physical product. And I can do whatever I want with it, including lending it to a friend, donating it to a charity, or selling it at a garage sale. Not so with an e-book. And that, too, is wrong.

Libraries are already using systems that allow people to borrow e-books. I’d like to see that technology leveraged such that I could, if I liked, allow my friend to borrow my e-book. I could send him an e-mail that has a link allowing him to download a copy of the book that will self-destruct after a period of time I set. For that same length of time, the book would be unavailable to me, just as if I’d loaned out a physical copy. In essence, we would all become lending libraries. (Bonus: Unlike when you lend out a physical book, you know for sure you’ll get this one back!)

Additionally, there should be a little button or menu item or what-have-you that says “I want to sell/transfer this book.” At which point, you would be allowed to e-mail that book to the one person of your choice and it would be deleted from your device. Ta-da. Problem solved.

How would this work? There would probably be some sort of code involved or some sort of check system on the web. Whatever. It’s not nontrivial to design and implement, I’m sure, but it’s also no more difficult than any other “is this person the right person?” system established in the past decade.

Frankly, this is the only reason to dislike DRM in e-books, because it prevents you from giving away or selling your old books, which is something you should totally be allowed to do. Once a solution like the above is implemented, I can’t think of any other reason to complain about it.

I suppose now I’ve opened myself up to all sorts of attacks: I’m anti-freedom, I guess. I hate the amazing liberation of piracy. I’m denying the sales power inherent in free.

No, no, and no.

I have no problem giving away free stuff in order to get people interested in my work. Hell, I was in charge of Free Comic Book Day, remember? I am well aware of the power of free.

The issue, again, is that the decision to give away my work should be mine, not some pirate’s. It is my work. I get to decide. Not you. Not a script-kiddie with too much computing power and too much time on his hands.

Many pirates, it must be said, put their money where their mouths are. They freely give away and allow to be redistributed, for example, the tools they’ve devised to pirate other people’s work. And I applaud them for not being hypocrites at the same time that I exhort them (and everyone reading this) to note that doing so was a choice they made. A choice.

It is not a choice someone else made for them.

So why should they get a free pass in taking that choice away from me?

I don’t think they should.

So, yes — I will never stop the pirates of the world. But that’s OK. I don’t intend to. But I also will never simply throw my hands in the air and say, “OK, everyone — steal from me.”

Because that’s my choice.

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

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