Don’t fear the ebook bogeyman

21 Jul

Last week I wrote about how I thought DRM (digital rights management, or copy protection) concerns on ebooks were overblown after having a discussion on Twitter with Kevin McArthur, a web developer in B.C. and fellow author. Kevin posted his own well thought-out disagreement on his blog, and I promised I’d continue the dialog. So here we go:

The issue is – does it really matter whether copy protection is put on ebooks? My position was: no it doesn’t, because on one hand sellers such as Amazon are already making the ebook you buy available across multiple devices, so copying isn’t actually required, and on the other hand, competition will generally correct problems that do arise. If I could boil down Kevin’s position – he’s worried about what happens when the ebook market shakes out into a few dominant players who can then call the shots, which is what happens in just about every market. Won’t they wield considerably more power than they do now, and can’t they then shaft consumers?

It’s a legitimate concern, but I’d reiterate my two points. Firstly, when you buy an ebook through Amazon today, you can either read it on the company’s own Kindle ereader device, or you can read it through its Kindle app on Apple’s iPhone/iPad/iPod on a BlackBerry, Android devices or PC. It’s a variation of “cloud” storage, where you buy something and it may not actually reside on any actual device you own, but rather on the seller’s servers, similar to how your Hotmail or Gmail sits on Microsoft and Google servers. Many people chafe at this idea because they think that if the item they bought isn’t actually in their possession, they don’t really own it.

I maintain that the idea of ownership is changing when it comes to electronic goods, and we need to get used to it. The above example of email is a good one – we all used to use Microsoft Outlook or AOL or whatever and download email to our desktops. But then Hotmail and Yahoo and Gmail came along and convinced us of the benefits of storing it “in the cloud.” The benefits were obvious – we let Microsoft, Yahoo and Google worry about keeping our email safe and secure, and we could access it from anywhere. Some people still refuse to use such services because they’re worried about what could happen to their email if something were to happen to these companies or their servers. That’s perhaps a legitimate concern, but consider that if Google, say, were to accidentally and irrevocably lose all of its users’ emails, that would pretty much be curtains for the company. Needless to say, their entire business is vested in making sure such things don’t happen.

This cloud trend is clearly happening with digital entertainment. Amazon’s Kindle ebooks, available on a plethora of devices, is one example. The announcement yesterday of UltraViolet, a new attempt by Hollywood studios to come up with a single, compatible format for digital movies that will make them playable across a variety of devices, is another. The benefits here are the same as with email. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got shelves and shelves full of CDs, DVDs and books at home. Most of them I’ll never play/watch/read again, and they become a giant pain in the ass whenever I move, plus I have to dust them on occasion. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever buy another CD or DVD again when I can just access them digitally, pretty much any time I want (I’m not quite there with books, but that change is probably coming).

I, for one, would rather have all of my media stored electronically – and putting it on the cloud where it can be accessed from anywhere is the next logical step from having it on a hard drive.

The argument then seems to morph into whether we are actually being sold ownership of media, or whether we’re just buying access to it. It seems pretty clear that we are indeed moving toward an access model, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the reasons outlined above. One very legitimate concern I’ve heard about this move is: what happens when the company who sold you all your digital stuff goes bust? What would happen to all that access you bought and paid for? That’s absolutely a legit concern and some legal assurances need to be built into the model. Perhaps such a business that wants to close down should somehow be obligated to provide its customers with a DRM-free copy of everything they bought? I suspect such protections won’t happen until a major seller does go bust and a large number of customers get the shaft. Someone on Twitter recently suggested that this has already happened, but if it did, I certainly didn’t hear about it. At some point, Darwinism again comes into play – if you’re going to buy music from some smaller site that could go under tomorrow and which won’t let you play it without some sort of DRM access code, well then maybe you deserve to lose your purchases. For the love of god, go buy a CD instead.

That’s where the second part of my argument comes in – that competition will take care of things. What I actually mean is “market forces,” but I’m avoiding using that term for fear of sounding like certain politicians. For the most part, market forces do actually work (when they are allowed to, which is often not the case in Canada). Apple is a great example – as fear continues to build over how much power the company wields through a gateway such as iTunes, so too does the business case for alternatives. If Apple gets too brash for its own good, other businesses (Netflix, Amazon, Xbox Live, etc.) will correspondingly benefit as suspicious customers look elsewhere. If Apple gets really brash, they’ll get a visit from anti-trust authorities (which is already happening).

My point is, when it comes to DRM on ebooks, there isn’t really that much need to worry. No one – not Amazon, not Apple, not the publishers – are coming at ebooks from an overwhelming position of power, which means there will be much competition and much wheeling and dealing done over the next few years. And in that same time frame, the technology is likely to change again from downloaded ebooks to ebooks residing in the cloud. There’s just no sense in getting too worked up about it. You can generally trust anyone selling you an ebook today to make it available to you tomorrow because if they don’t, they won’t see your repeat business. And if someone sells you a DRM-restricted cloud ebook and goes under, then refuses to honour it if they go under, well there’ll be a class-action lawsuit that you can take part in too.

One of the most overused words in technology circles is “solution,” and there’s a reason why companies call their products that – because they generally consider them to be “solutions” to existing problems. I do indeed believe that technology solves problems. Combine it with competition and there isn’t an issue that can’t be solved.


Posted by on July 21, 2010 in amazon, apple, books, internet


8 responses to “Don’t fear the ebook bogeyman

  1. Russell McOrmond

    July 21, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Here is where we disagree.

    If DRM was understood as a technology to protect contracting terms, and those terms were disclosed to all the parties involved (copyright holders, DRM manufacturers, consumers, courts and politicians), then the market and the courts could just work everything out and everything would be fine.

    As soon as people are confused into thinking that DRM has anything to do with copyright, then all bets are off. In this article you used the marketing phrase “copy protection”, something that DRM isn’t in actual technological terms, rather than digital contract protection.

    Copyright holders will be screwed — if they don’t know that this is a contracting issue, how can they determine if the contracts protect their interests? How can politicians put the protection in the right law, and have the existing balance in the law protected rather than gamed by technology providers who duped the politicians in the first place? How can competing technology companies deal with the anti-competitive impacts when “competition” isn’t considered a valid enforcement issue in copyright (Look at the Competition Bureau’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Guidelines), but very much is handled in contract (which is what DRM is — contract).

    In essence, if people continue to think that DRM is related to copyright, no “market forces” can really exist. Only when people recognise the nature of the relationships being protected in the technology can those relationships properly work themselves out over time.

  2. James Gannon

    July 22, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    This is an excellent and balanced look at the issue of DRM protection for ebooks. I think an additional point to make is that the public’s awareness of DRM has played a large role towards their eventual acceptance. While the public has generally adapted to the use of TPMs on things such as DVDs and computer software, we have also seen market-based backlashes where the public has “drawn the line” (Sony Rootkit and the Amazon 1984 incident are good examples).

    Watching the back-and-forth between distributors and consumers, in particular with regards to ebooks, demonstrates that an appropriate balance will eventually emerge. Don’t forget that TPMs are still a relatively new technology and their rapid mainstream adoption is quite unprecedented.


    July 22, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    I agree-

    E-Books are available across a multitude of devices, and the ownership could never restricted to one unit. This is an old lesson from the digital realm! We’ve clearly embraced this type of open accessiblity already since intellectual property reaches all types of gadgetry.

    Cloud storage will not rain on your parade, and even if it did- there’ll be no pages to get wet.


    Bryan AVM

  4. Rob

    July 22, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Great post, Peter. I agree that we are moving towards a cloud/access model for all digital content, and the subscriber/service-provider relationship will have to rely on some form of DRM. Which I don’t see as a bad thing – if it protects my ‘account’, rights holders are getting paid, and content cannot be extracted/pirated – then it’s a win-win all around.

    The music world is heading there already, and not soon enough in Canada, where we have a massive gap in digital music services (which has always been a convenient excuse for widespread content theft via P2P).

  5. darlene_michelle

    July 22, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Good points here. On “what happens when the ebook market shakes out into a few dominant players who can then call the shots?”, the Apple/music example is relevant. Apple started with DRM on iTunes downloads, but removed it a few years back despite having a clear interest in driving music purchasers to use iTunes and Apple computers only.

  6. lawguy51

    July 22, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Music is already in the cloud (Spotify-UK) just not in Canada. The Canadian music industry will get there I’m sure once they feel adequate legal protection (i.e. copyright law revision) is in place. Early adopters they are not. BTW, iTunes had DRMs because the major labels insisted on them. Then they didn’t so now they are gone. Originally, Jobs wanted to sell songs for a dime, not a business model that worked for the music industry. As for DRMS, as long as those who procure content legally don’t notice them, then only the pirates have anything to worry about. Good article.

  7. Zygo

    July 26, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    I agree with all that up to, but not including, the point where I have to connect a device that I own to a public data network (such as the Internet) and let it run software over which I have less than line-by-line control because I can’t examine or change the software due to a digital lock, and neither can anyone else (except criminals, who don’t care that such activities are much harder to perform legally under C-32).

    To me, that’s an onerous requirement. It means I can’t fix security bugs in the software or even effectively monitor its behavior (and neither can anyone else, except criminals). When the device is connected to a public data network, I’m stuck with responsibility for whatever the device does, without the authority to control the device (again, except criminals). That is completely unfair–if I’m liable for the harm the device does to other people, the least the device vendor can do is grant me the ability to control what the device does–or accept third-party liability themselves.

    I can’t blindly run someone’s trade-secret DRM software on the same device that I use for everything else I use computing devices for, and neither should anyone else. The risk of another Sony RootKit-like problem is already too high, and systems that connect DRM-encumbered mobile devices to payment systems with access to real money are making DRM-encumbered systems even more attractive targets for criminal exploitation. If there are sufficient numbers of systems deployed that all share a common vulnerability (like the increasing numbers of known attacks against the iPhone OS, for example), public safety can be threatened by the impact of these problems. Universal DRM is one way to make this nightmare scenario happen a whole lot faster.

    If there is to be competition between DRM systems, consumers would also need to have one device for each kind of DRM. That’s a lot of cell phones to fit into one pocket, and a lot of environmentally damaging waste while the DRM vendors battle for supremacy.

  8. Laurel L. Russwurm

    July 29, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    DRM takes away my rights as a writer. As a “content creator” I should be able to control how I choose to license my work.

    DRM takes copyright control away from the creator and places it in the hands of the device or media manufacturer.

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