Many thanks to Court for the essay below, which reflects his views and not necessarily TeleRead’s. – D.R.

The sky is falling on those who want to fence in our content—books, music, video, audio, software—with DRM. But it’s not over yet. Here are some arguments to use with friends who don’t grasp the damage that DRM does to books.

Yes, it is just and fair to pay for an MP3, or an e-book, or a movie, or a piece of software, especially if you’re supporting a particular musician or writer or filmmaker, etc. But once you purchase that chunk of media, it should be yours. No musician, writer, or corporation should be able to hang on to the content I paid for. That’s what DRM does. It controls what you do with what you pay for. If I buy a copy of a public domain work like Moby Dick, I am then free to read it, give it away, resell it, or use it as kindling. That’s my right. Why is a copyrighted e-book or an MP3 any different?

Because, say the content providers, e-books and MP3s can be copied infinitely, perfectly, on the web.

Yes, they can. That’s the nature of the beast. Things change, move forward, progress. Technology more so than most other things. No doubt the monks who spent years hand-copying Bibles in their monasteries ranted piously about Mr. Gutenberg’s invention. History wasn’t on the side of the monks, and it’s not on the side of today’s adherents to outmoded, outmaneuvered, and outdone institutions, er, corporations. If you listen closely, that’s the collapse of a thousand business models you can hear in the distance.

Things are simply going to have to get done in different ways. Here are pointers to anti-DRM writings.

Image credit: Don’t steal the cattle, a CC-licensed photo by William Jas.

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  1. I agree that selling restrictive DRM files is a foolish business practice but I think that artists have a right to offer DRM locked content and the customer has the right to buy it (consenting to whatever restrictions come with the purchase) or decline to buy it.

    Perhaps if you look at it not as buying ownership of the song or ebook but leasing it with certain conditions. Surely you agree that I should be able to lease my house with limitations on the resident (no pets etc). Then shouldn’t I be free to “rent” my songs/movies/ebooks with conditions (eg no duplicating/removing DMR etc). Again, if you don’t like the conditions then you are free to refuse to buy it. Note that if the contract/EULA says that the customer will be able to download the file unlimited times then the seller should be forced to honour this contract or compensate the purchasers if they shut down the server and files are no longer available.

    This said, I think that if someone does remove the DRM and share the file around, although he or she has violated the contract (and should be punished) anyone who downloads the file is innocent because they never entered into a contract with the seller. They should be free to distribute the file which is only information which no-one should be permitted to monopolise by coercion.

    So what I am trying to say is if you buy a product with strings attached you don’t have full ownership just because you paid for it.

  2. Many thanks, Court, for sharing your thoughts. Here’s where I’d respectfully disagree with you.

    I dislike DRM as much as you do, but we need to remember the doctrine of fair use. In other words, I’d love to see it legal to break DRM for backup purposes or for use without your family or on different devices. If that means the end of DRM, so be it. But that’s a lot different from being free to share the material legally with 5,000 of your closet friends via P2P. No, I don’t think people should be free to put still-copyrighted content up without compensation to writers. Perhaps you feel the same way. If so, you might want to clarify the passage below:

    If I buy a copy of a public domain work like Moby Dick, I am then free to read it, give it away, resell it, or use it as kindling. That’s my right. Why is an e-book or an MP3 any different?

    Remember, Moby Dick is public domain, so it’s a different animal.

    Let me throw in a few more nuances. I’d like to see the right of first sale applied to digital works, although ideally with provisions for compensating writers and publishers since digital copies will be in perfect shape, unlike used p-books. By contrast, I hate the idea of a requirement that sellers of used paper books pay fees to content providers. It’s a different situation from digital. Similarly I see used DVDs as ok since we’re still in the area of physical media.

    Just my thoughts. You and others are welcome to disagree!


  3. Robbie, if I understand you correctly, you are against piracy. If I buy a Kindlebook, I shouldn’t rip it and put it up on a P2P network, in other words. On the one hand I agree with you. In order to use the Kindle, for instance, you agree to Amazon’s terms, which forbid hacking. Therefore I am bound by those terms when I purchase a Kindlebook. Seems straightforward enough, and I don’t disagree with you, per se.

    However: why should Kindlebook come with DRM fences that the paper version doesn’t have? If you view DRM as an intrusion on our shared free culture, as I do, then removing Kindlebook DRM is just “returning” it to its “ecosystem”. Righting a wrong, as it were.

    I don’t hack Kindlebooks because I very rarely buy them. (Also: I don’t know how.) 95% of what’s on my Kindle is freely available on the web. The Kindle’s a fantastic tool for that. So I’m basically opting out of Amazon’s system, using an Amazon device. A slight irony I like to savor.

    David, nice call. Moby Dick is a terrible example, since it’s in the public domain already. But you could insert The Secret, and I’d feel the same way.

    As for compensating writers, I also think first-sale rights should apply to ebooks, but in precisely the same way as paper books. Yes, ebooks allow for infinite perfect copies, but that’s just the nature of the beast. We’ll have to adjust.

    I don’t know how you’d introduce a universal compensation system without huge complications. I think a better way to go may be voluntary payments for a canonical product, in the vein of Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails. Perhaps through sites like Manybooks or Fictionwise. I think most people, myself included, are happy to pay reasonable prices for content they like, especially if they know the lion’s share will go toward the creator.

    Thanks for the comments and ideas.

  4. There is no objection in principle to offering DRM-equipped and non-DRM-equipped content in competition with each other, but unfortunately the economics just don’t add up. In practice DRM adds to the cost of the item while reducing its value to the consumer. My own estimate of the value of DRM-protected content to me is about 10% of the value of non-protected content: that is, if I am happy to pay $1 for an eBook or music track without DRM I would be happy to pay about 10c for the same content with DRM. But unless some kind of economic miracle based on mass consumption takes place, no distributor will be able to implement DRM for that kind of price. It’s not ‘cheaper or better’; it’s ‘cheaper AND better’. All the odds are stacked against DRM.

  5. Robbie, your ‘rental’ analogy only holds up if the customer actually has the choice to be either/or and then can willingly chose the ‘rental’ model. I, for one, would be happy to pay a ‘rental’ for certain books (rather than an outright sale) IF the rental was priced with the fact of my non-permanent ownership in mind. But it isn’t. Right now, e-books all gunked up with DRM go for hard-back print edition prices. Therefore, people expect to own them. If you told me I could have it for the price of a rental movie (but it would expire or have some other DRM restriction) I would be fine with that, so long as it was priced appropriately and so long as I did have the option to outright buy a DRM-free version in addition.

  6. Nobody likes DRM – not publishers or consumers. On that I think we can likely agree.

    If you want to be an activist in this matter then by all means follow through and contact publishers and explain why you would like to buy their product but won’t as long as they are “encumbered” by DRM.

    Robbie has this right though. If you don’t like items wrapped with DRM then…simply…don’t…buy…them. Duh!

    Tangentially, if you don’t like ebooks priced at the same price as pbooks (with DRM or sans DRM) then…simply…don’t…buy…them.

  7. Sure, HeavyG, don’t buy DRM books. But that doesn’t obviate the need for a standard DRM-free ebook standard. I’m confident Amazon and others will see the light. I’d just like them to hurry up about it. And encourage as many other publishers as possible to beat them to the punch.

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