The End of DRM Ebooks (for Me)

In this blog I have talked about DRM and ebooks quite often. One of the theoretical oppositions to DRM is that as technologies change, one loses access to them. Well, it’s no longer theory for me. As I’ve made the decision to get a Sharp Zaurus for the next PDA, I can’t use my typical PalmOS apps anymore. For all the multiformat books and magazines I have purchased from Fictionwise, I’m OK. I can redownload them in another format that is usable on the Zaurus. However, I have a few (not a whole lot, but some) Palm Reader/Peanut Press books that I actually purchased. Every one of these is no longer usable by me. There is no Palm Reader for Zaurus so the money that I paid Palm is essentially gone and there is nothing I can do about it, save either trying to crack the books myself or someone releasing a Palm Reader port for the Zaurus. Theory moves into practice as I now find myself a burned customer, who is rewarded for paying my money and downloading legitimate copies of things by not being able to read them any more. Thanks Palm/Peanut! Hope you enjoy the $50 or so I have spent for your books that I can’t read anymore.

A bad part is that I can’t refer back to books for which I paid good money – in most cases a similar amount to what one would pay for the paper copy. Even worse, there are some that I hadn’t yet read and now I’ll never be able to read. The Paul Wellstone book Conscience of a Liberal was one of those. I read the first chapter and now that’s all I’ll ever get to read, despite having paid my good money for it. I paid $10 to get the annotated Fire Upon the Deep, in which I’ll never be able to dig through the annotations again.

With this situation comes a bit of resolve from me. I will never again spend one cent on any ebook that involves a form of DRM that leaves me at risk for not being able to read it later. I will happily pay for electronic reading – I plan on retaining my electronic subscriptions to F&SF and Asimov’s SF via Fictionwise – but never again will I pay for DRM books. I’m not putting my cash at risk to ease publisher nerves. If you think I as your customer can’t be trusted and must be treated like a criminal under house arrest with an ankle bracelet, you can kiss my ass. I’ll keep my money in my pocket and not give it to you. I’ll give it instead to your competitors who don’t treat me that way. God forbid, I might even read more Baen books! I love how they do business, if only they published more books I wanted to read.

Ironically, this moment of resolve comes at a point where I really am trying to purge the enormity of paper books from my life. I continue to try to reduce them, knowing that we have at least one more move in our lives in the next few years. I’m the absolute perfect consumer for ebooks – you might find someone equally close to the ideal target demographic but you will not find someone closer. I love to read. I love to hoard but I’ve hit the limits of my physical space. I enjoy the act of reading on a small device. As a geek and have no problems with the weaknesses of e-text. I love the ubiquity of having a library in my pocket at all times. I have disposable cash and the willingness to spend it on this product line. E-publishers couldn’t hope for more. However, because of their business practices a significant number of them have lost access to me and my money that I will be spending somewhere, just not with them. What a shame for them, what a boon for the publishers who are trusting enough not to lock up their documents in proprietary DRM and who understand that the risks of unauthorized file trading are far lower than the risks of not making the money in the first place.

Update: I realized I left out a key detail that probably everyone can infer but I should state explicitly: all my Palm devices are DOA. I can’t have a transition where I read up all my old books before I switch over to the new device because my old Palm devices are all fubar.

Update #2: This is turning out to be one of the more linked blog articles I’ve writing. When I first emailed David Rothman, I mentioned in passing that I was once the team lead for the server side team in the publishing division of Intertrust. In retrospect, I didn’t really want that to be the focus of things and it is my fault for mentioning it in the email without being clear on that point to David. The story of me working for Intertrust in short is that as a very young engineer I worked for a scrappy ebook reader company called JStream (the first startup I ever worked for). That company went out of business, but was reconstituted as Infinite Ink with most of the same people. I already had another job by the time the company was reformed, but I continued to work with my old team part-time. In 2000, Infinite Ink was acquired by Intertrust. At first it seemed like a good fit – the JStream/Infinite Ink reader was very good (still better than anything I’ve seen since) but had hokey DRM.

We thought that the resources of the larger company would allow us to fit their DRM on the back end of our reader and then get it pushed out into the world. In practice, no one at Intertrust cared about our reader and they charged us with repurposing our stuff into Acrobat plugin based solutions. I was in charge of the servers and the exchange of fingerprint information for a key to unlock the document as well as managing what locked document got served to whom with what key. I really wasn’t a “DRM engineer” per se, I was more a user of the DRM tools. It was all black boxes to me. My concerns were web interfaces, content repositories, commerce servers, etc.

It’s a shame that the reader never went anywhere. It was written with a semi-platform independent layer, so that although Windows was the main thrust I saw a working prototype of a Mac OS 8 version and at the time that Intertrust’s publishing division was shown the door via layoffs they were talking about porting that layer to PalmOS. With a very slight change in history, I could be working today on a prominent PDA ebook reader. The JPress/IPress reader of 1999/2000 was still better than the Palm Reader or iSilo or MobiPocket of 2004. C’est la morte.

I just added all this to clarify that I wasn’t really and truly an Intertrust DRM engineer, but more of a book reader publishing guy. I was never part of the core ITRU family – all the guys in publishing were related by marriage rather than blood. We worked in Portland OR and weren’t part of the core political stuff in Santa Clara, which probably explains why we were all cut in the very first round of layoffs. My one bit of triumph was that all my servers were still running perfectly 18 months after I was canned, and I highly doubt they were getting much if any maintenance since all those people were gone. Until they day they decommisioned it, I was still getting locked books served out from the demo server. I checked on it once a week just to see if things were alright, like a protective parent who wasn’t awarded custody in a messy divorce. Even though I will never again buy a DRM locked book, I have to say that I am still highly proud of the engineering work I put into that system.

And now you know … the rest of the story.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father.

6 thoughts on “The End of DRM Ebooks (for Me)”

  1. You aren’t totally out of luck on the Palm eBooks. I assume, since you are blogging from blosxom, you own some form of OS X machine, which means you own a Palm Reader compatible device. The download is even free.

  2. Jake,

    I didn’t know that there was an OS X Palm Reader. I do have one, although I don’t see how you make that inferrence. Most of my friends that use blosxom don’t have OS X boxes. It’s good to know that I’m not completely out of luck on reading the books. That cushions the blow slightly, but doesn’t alter the fundaments of my position. I paid my money to be able to read these books away from the computer on the small ubiquitous device I keep on my person. If the option was “pay $10 for FIRE UPON THE DEEP and you can only read it sitting at your Mac” I would have kept my money. I want the open solution. I went with the Zaurus ultimately because it was more open than a Clie, and I want the same from my documents. I want to be able to do with them what I see fit and that includes moving them from device to device in the future, on OSes that haven’t yet been invented and in uses I haven’t yet dreamed of.

  3. Amen to your comments re DRM. They’re right on the money.

    As an owner of two Rockets, an hp jornada 540, (which is a:) failing and b:)which Microsoft cavalierly refused to support with an upgrade less than a year after it came out), a hiebook I hardly ever use,(don’t ask), and a newly acquired Palm Zire 71 which I’m just getting into, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    While you were on the subject, you might also have mentioned the extortionate prices at Palm Digital Media for the aforementioned DRM titles. i.e. While I happen to be a longtime Jonathan Kellerman fan, I have no intention of shelling over $13.00 for a DRM download from PDM, or Fictionwise, of his latest release. (Especially when all I have to do is wait six months to pick up the hard cover edition for $5.00 from my friendly neighborhood used bookseller. And the same goes for Tony Hillerman et al.)

  4. Kate, thanks for your input. The price is an issue, but more of a self-correcting one for me. If the price is too high (like, the same as the hardcover) I don’t even consider buying it. The very first ebook I read on my very first handheld was John Stith’s MANHATTAN TRANSFER, for which I mailed him a check for $2 shareware. I’ve paid as much as $10, but never more. I didn’t discuss the price in my original thing because that wasn’t the burr under my saddle and probably never will be. Places that have high prices I just never return to. This is also why the bulk of my purchases are either Fictionwise or AlexLit, both of which have mostly reasonable prices (except when the publisher makes them jack it up.)

  5. Dude,

    Buy paperback books and this technology wont affect you!

    Some things are better off the ‘traditional way’.

  6. I am trying to read encrypted ebooks at on my Zaurus.

    Could you please tell me what format you redownloaded in order to read them on your Zaurus, as well as what reader you used?


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