Writer Jeffrey A. Carver’s DRM Pledge

I saw something very intersting on the Mobile Read forums yesterday. Science fiction author Jeffrey A. Carver posted his DRM pledge. Basically it is his promise to not let customers of his books down, even when the DRM his books are wrapped in fail them. The key portion of the pledge:

If you buy one of my ebooks from a store that uses DRM, and you can’t download or read the book on your chosen device—whether it’s the reader you originally bought it for or another—I want to help. Email me, preferably with some evidence of your purchase, and I will provide you with a copy that works for you. If you want to share it with a family member or a close friend the way you might a paper book, that’s fine with me. If you want to convert the file to work on a different device, feel free. I trust you not to share it indiscriminately. I figure if I treat you with respect, you’ll respect my need to earn a living, so I can continue to write. And you’ll get to read my book and own a copy of it, which was the whole point to begin with.

This is a highly respectable thing to do, and a move that I suspect will engender some goodwill amongst potential readership. Back when I was doing my mobile reading on a Handspring device, I purchased some books from Fictionwise and Peanut Press. Every book I ever bought from Fictionwise I still have access to, and most of those are sitting on my Kindle right now because they had no DRM on them. The Peanut Press books are useless. I suppose I could find some sort of cracking program or a Palm device emulator but really, I don’t care that much. It would be cheaper to me to buy the books again than spend that kind of time recovering access. In practice, I’d never do that because I still feel burned most of a decade on. Having someone make an assurance to me that won’t happen is a very good thing. Even better, I’ve found at least one other author making the same pledge. I’d love to see this become a movement.

I appreciate Jeffrey Carver’s stance and his willingness to short-circuit one of the biggest impediments to getting involved in ebooks from big publishers. Even as they are arguing why they should be charging more than the $9.99 price for the electronic versions, they insist on locking it with DRM that prevents you from using it in the future. Big publishers choose to reduce value to consumer while raising prices.

I’ve come to believe that over the 20 years I’ve had some small dealings with this kind of stuff that publishers are the businesses that are the very worst at business. “Hey, this new product has come along with zero marginal costs to us per copy sold. I can’t see how we can possibly make any money on that! Let’s jack up the prices and fiddle around with customers whose primary interest is reading our books.” Oh boy, I’ve been on this train before and I remember how it comes into the station. When your authors have to put their own balls on the line to protect customers from your business practices, that’s an indictment of a whole industry. One of the interesting side-effects of the pledge is that it strengthens the relationship between Carver and his fans, and weakens even more that between the customers and the publishers. It’s one more step down the trail of publisher irrelevance. The wise publishers would notice that and change business practices to keep themselves in this loop.

I applaud Jeffrey A. Carver for making this pledge, and I condemn all the executives and decision makers who have made it necessary.

Pay for DRM Digital Goods and Get Screwed

In yet another data point for why you should never commit your cash to any digital good that is protected by DRM, Yahoo Music is shutting down their authorization servers this fall. What I just said goes double for anything that requires a server hit to authorize or reauthorize. Some day, the server will not be there, because the company has gone out of business or been purchased or, like Yahoo, just decided it is too much trouble to provide ongoing service of the goods you bought in good faith. Pay attention everyone, because sooner or later this is what happens to everything purchased digitally and protected by DRM that requires central servers.

I used to be in this business when I worked for Intertrust. I’m still working off the karmic debt for that (although getting screwed up the butt on the failed stock was a big downpayment). At the time DRM seemed rational enough and now I have completely reversed that opinion. The worst part is that almost always, these goods have a price markup because of the costs of the DRM provider in the chain. In reality, they should be discounted because of the lowered utility to you and the risk you bear of one day not being able to listen to your songs or watch your movies or play your games.

At Intertrust. our system worked by generating keys that were based on a fingerprint of your system. If you changed anything, the fingerprint changed and the keys stopped working, needing a new one to be served. That would include reinstalling the OS, changing a hard drive or MAC address, etc. Basically, make any substantive change to the hardware or OS and you invalidate those digital goods. That is the fate awaiting all the Yahoo Music customers (both of them.) Things will work up until a change and then it is over. Eventually something will fail or you will buy a new computer and there goes that.

So my friends, pay attention to this. It’s time to cut off this style of doing business at the wallet by dropping the demand for such goods to zero. If you trust the market like most libertarian leaning geeks, making sure there is no profit in DRM will get rid of it more effectively than a million words of rhetoric. I’ve bought digital goods that I can no longer access and that will never happen again. It’s not unlike the group dynamics of vaccination or going on strike – it only takes a small percentage of group members breaking out to undermine the whole effort. Don’t pay for DRM goods and help the digital world.

Kathryn Cramer on DRM and IP

I recently read these two posts by Kathryn Cramer, one on DRM issues and patents and one on DRM and digital watermarking. She makes a lot of great points in both and comes back to a point I have raised multiple time. A lot of the schemes that are purportedly designed to lock down digital goods and prevent theft have the side-effect of raising the barrier to entry to new publishers (ie, you and me). In other words, media incumbents raise the specter of theft as rationale for opposition to file sharing. By their actions, it often seems like they are less threatened by file sharing to steal their goods than file sharing to distribute goods that aren’t theirs.

In the first post I cite, she has a great quote about how print publishers now get digital rights to works they publish:

Ten years ago, publishers started demanding of authors electronic rights in contract negotiations for no additional compensation. The authors had very little leverage with which to resist. My personal reaction, listening to the entertainment executives complaining in the Anelog Hole hearing about the potential for uncompensated “creators” (by which they mean corporations) is Cry me a river! I don’t know how the details of this were worked out in film and music, but in print publishing, the very digital rights that it is claimed need protection were demanded of authors by over-powerful corporations over the author’s collective objections, in large part without additional compensation. Was that piracy?

In the second, she raises the point I mention above:

My experience in the early-mid 90s teaches me that part of the purpose of setting the production standards of early CD-ROMs absurdly high was to promote corporate authorship over individual authorship with the idea that digital products could be authored like film and TV, not like books, thus empowering the executive level and disempowering the actual creators, or rather reconfiguring relations such that executives become part of the creative “team.”

Now computers are being sold that allow individuals, and small groups of individuals, to produce works to very high production standards on very low budgets. This also threatens the rise of corporate authorship. So watermark-style DRM may do very little to prevent the “piracy” about which the big media corporations are up in arms, it may be the killer app of corporate authorship.

It needs to be said over and over that in the early ’90s, corporations did not own or control most of these digital rights they now claim the right to defend. In large part, these rights were taken, without additional compensation, from the artistic creators. (I know who the real pirates are!)

Both posts are great. Check them out.