DRM—Murdering the Reader, or Why Informed Reading is Good

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image source: gigaom.com

In March, a reboot of SimCity was met with an outcry from PC gamers around the world. The game, which requires a constant, high-speed Internet connection, was more or less unplayable.

SimCity publisher Electronic Arts (EA) blamed the slow-down on the massively multiplayer aspects of the game. Their servers couldn’t handle the demand—an issue that, admittedly, EA has struggled with in the past. From the gamer community, though, the always-online requirement of gameplay had been an issue from the moment it was announced.

It was the game’s digital rights management (DRM) system. A tiny lock that, in effect, says “The copy of this game with registration key x is in use on y number of computers registered to username and password z.” While the server is down, the game is—as was shipped—unplayable. It also happens to become unplayable any time that Disc X is installed on two or three more systems. Or any time that user account is logged out.

When the servers go down or someone like EA decides to kill the game. All that’s left is a sixty dollar coaster, albeit one you can handily store in your DVD drive.

This isn’t a new issue. DRM has been around for decades, applied to commercial software like Microsoft Office, the Adobe Creative Suite, Windows—most anything that requires you to enter an activation key comes with this nifty little chain and lock. You’re licensed the software. You do not own it. And we accept this. The software is, after all, not ours to modify. And why would we? We need it to get function as designed so we can get work done.

Beginning with the last decade, DRM found its way into our music and DVDs the spiritual successor to the time the head of the Motion Picture Assocation of America (MPAA) tried to get Congress to ban VCRs.

Depending on who you use as a reference, the most notable case for DRM entering the consumer market would likely be the FairPlay protection that limited the amount of computers on which a user could play an album or song purchased via the iTunes. From the time of the iTunes Store’s launch in April,2003, to January 6, 2009, albums from most major recording studios bore DRM that prevented the songs from being used on more than three (and later five) computers simultaneously.

Seem dumb? Yeah. Apple thought so, too.

Since 2009, most major digital music retailers no longer use DRM as the default. Amazon, Google, iTunes—pretty much anywhere you’d buy music, chances are you’re going to be able to listen to it wherever you want. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for apps, movies, or eBooks.

There may come a day when Microsoft and the MPAA decide we can do whatever we want with our Office suites and movies, but by then we’ll likely just be streaming things straight into our head, surrendering all our rights and privacy to the Face-oogle Plus network.

That we’re still talking about DRM hiding inside eBooks is incorrigible any way you slice it. DRM murders the reader by design—”You can only have this installed on so many devices,” “You can only read this in approved apps.” Whether you’re forcing them to be online or signed into their marketplace account, the only thing you’re doing is putting them off reading. Not to mention adding more distance between modern consumers and ownership of their digital files.

A writer will always want to see their work read by the widest possible audience it can get. A good editor will always want to bring out the best in a writer’s work and share it with the best audience the writing can find. This is the circle, the community, in which writing develops and exists—and will continue to exist.

For either party in that relationship, then, to tease the reader and build a digital honeypot to trap them is not in the best interest of the writer.

“But I don’t want people to steal my—” Stop right there. Saying you don’t want people stealing your work online is a lot like saying you don’t want people to steal your work when you submit it. Such an assumption likely supposes a level of success that is probably both unrealistic and unobtainable.

For an author to be legitimately for the use of DRM after a careful consideration of what its implications are for its readers is to make a willful attack on those readers. DRM authentication systems shut down. Companies go out of business. When that happens, you’re done reading. Permanently.

Okay, so chances of Adobe (who provides a popular, widely-used, and easily cracked form of DRM) going out any time soon? Pretty small. But say what if the credit card you use to buy eBooks expires? So do your books, if you buy at Barnes and Noble. Perhaps we should also consider the problems Barnes and Noble is having in general…

What writers need to consider is the benefits of making their book freely available to the widest audience possible. Major publishers haven’t quite caught on to the idea that bundling an eBook with a print book is a really good idea. At the same time, a lot of writers are either unaware of what happens to their work when it comes to the digital space, or afraid that ripping an eBook is as easy as burning a CD.

It comes down to naiveté, both about publishing and the technology. And while eBooks are not and should not be a scary thing for writers, DRM should be treated as a plague-ridden, contagious, twenty-story Godzilla shooting radioactive lasers from its eyes.

DRM chains you to a license. While it’s in-tact, it’s not your book. This is usually pretty close to the top of those Terms and Conditions you said you read, but totally didn’t read. Take a look at Section 1 of the Kindle Store Terms of Use:

USE OF KINDLE CONTENT. Upon your download of Kindle Content and payment of any applicable fees (including applicable taxes), the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Kindle Content an unlimited number of times, SOLELY ON THE KINDLE OR READING APPLICATION or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Supported Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. KINDLE CONTENT IS LICENSED  NOT SOLD, to you by the Content Provider.

You give Amazon the right to revoke access to your content without explanation and has done so on a user-wide scale before.

Substitute Amazon here for pretty much any commercial retailer. When you buy a book that isn’t DRM-free, these are the terms you agree to. So why would anyone be in favor of this?

Yes, publishing is a business and publishers are often subsidiaries of media companies, who remember what Napster felt like and are terrified that the technological zeitgeist that hooked America on file-sharing will come again. If it would, it’d be a great thing. We don’t read enough.

Authors and publishers shouldn’t be afraid of piracy; they should be afraid of Amazon. A DRM-free eBook purchased directly through a publisher (again, a good idea few seem to be doing) can pretty easily be taken from one compatible reader to another. The Nook, the iPad, the Sony eReader, the Kobo—and countless others—all read eBooks in the same format. Even though the readers are different, and have their own quirks, a properly formatted book is likely to work just fine.

Compare that to the Kindle, which reads books in Amazon’s exclusive, proprietary format. Once on the Kindle, always on the Kindle—barring some tech wizardry that’s probably outside the aptitude or desire of most readers.

And maybe the majority of readers are okay with that. Maybe we’ve become so accustomed to the idea of buying our media from one ecosystem that we are no longer concerned with ownership because it’s always there—and the dominant players aren’t going anywhere.

But as readers, writers, and publishers, why settle for that? Amazon makes it worth an author’s while to sell a book exclusively on the Kindle Store for the first 90 days, but that’s no guarantee of sales. Just because they’re the dominant market, is it really safe to put all our eggs in one basket?

Recently, buying DRM-free has become the new buying local. Publishers have started to wise up, and readers have started to pay more attention to the small print. But some self-published authors, vanity presses, and data evangelists go far enough to suggest that book DRM-free should come with a hidden cost—analytics engines hiding inside the eBook.

Maybe it’s just me, but if a publisher really wants all kinds of information about me, I’m inclined to inundate them with the most minuscule of details—to interact with them as the most egregious of Twitter abusers do. They like how interested I am in embedded how-to videos? Perhaps they’d like to see every poorly-taken, overly-edited Instagram shot I can send them. Heaven forbid they simply ask for feedback.

Asking would likely be eye-opening for publishers. Do readers, once it’s been made plain to them, want DRM? Does the author? Readers won’t. People don’t like to be confused, they want it to work. Regardless of where they bought it, regardless of the device. What’s bad for readers is bad for authors—who themselves should be readers.

Because that’s what literature is. It’s a community, it’s a conversation. eBooks have had an uphill battle with a vocal set of readers and writers that swears up and down that they’re are somehow an incomplete or insufficient experience to their print analog. The only thing they have absolutely correct is this issue of ownership. Because if a reader is only licensed a book, can their experience with the book be truly theirs?

***

Zach Tarvin is an MFA candidate at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. He is Editor-in-chief of Oyez Review. More here.

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