Thursday, January 06, 2011

Why DRM Sucks

This is my own personal experience with an annoying bit of DRM. I'll not name names, but I'm sure those involved will know what I'm talking about.

First of all, DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. It's the method that many publishers are using to try to prevent copyright infringement of their books and music online. When a file has DRM on it, the file is limited in where it can be used and how. For instance, a music file with DRM cannot be moved to a new computer and played unless you can authorize that new computer somehow.

In this case, the file in question was a book. It had been purchased some time ago by the reader, who wanted to share the book with his wife. The file itself was on his ebook reader, and he thought that, since he had paid for the book, he could simply transfer it to his wife's computer and she could read it. He couldn't figure out how to do it, which is where I come into the story.

The reader, who we shall name "Tim" for no other reason that it amuses me, asked me if I could transfer the file to his wife's computer. For ease of telling, I'll call the wife "Jane". Tim showed me his reader, the SD card he'd put the book on, and explained the problem. I said the problem might be DRM, which Tim didn't know about. All he knew is that he'd bought the book for almost as much as a hardcover, and he thought he ought to be able to lend it to his wife. I asked if he remembered where he'd bought it. He didn't.

I took the SD card and loaded the file into my computer and tried to read it. Yup, DRM. I told Tim that there was no legal way for his wife to read the book on her computer. Tim was disgusted. Again, he asked what DRM was supposed to do. I answered that almost all publishers assume that their customers are criminals and put restrictive DRM on the books to prevent copyright infringement, but it doesn't work because the savvy can easily strip DRM and share the books anyway.

Tim wanted to know if I could strip the DRM off his book. I told him it was probably illegal, but I would try if it didn't bother him. He told me that he'd paid enough for the book that he wasn't concerned about the legality in this particular case. He just wanted Jane to be able to read the freaking book. So I tried. And failed utterly. I'm a techie, but there are things you have to know to strip DRM from a book, and finding those on an unfamiliar computer and an unfamiliar operating system was just a little bit beyond my technical competence.

Depressed at my failure, I resorted to Pirate Bay. And promptly found a non-DRM copy of the book. I *ahem* acquired it and loaded it onto a USB card, then put it on Jane's computer for her. She was delighted, I think, and I hope she enjoys the book. I asked her to delete it when she was done, as it's not a legal copy. However, it seems to me that it was a moral copy. Tim paid for the book, and should have the ability to read it and loan it out as he pleases. That DRM doesn't allow this is both an insult to the consumer and a sea change in the way people do business.

The thing that really bothers me about this incident is that the DRM forced Tim to be what the publishers thought he was (a copyright infringer) in order to do something that all people who buy books take for granted: the ability to loan a good book to a friend. By automatically assuming that all their customers are thieves, they make thieves of their customers.

I've noticed that some ebook readers are trying to address the problem, usually with more technology that is bound to go wrong. The latest Kindle apparently allows you to transfer a book to a friend's Kindle for some time period. And other readers already have that functionality, usually in the standard restrictive way. I appreciate the effort, but why not just trust your consumers instead?

The books are going to be pirated. Period. It's going to happen. Instead of taking it out on the paying consumer, make life easier and better for the people who pay. Personally, I'm in favor of marking the file when it is purchased with a user ID embedded in the code, preferably a couple of different ways so it's not easy to remove. I don't have a problem with a file I buy having my name on it. I have a problem with it not working on my computer/ereader because you've put DRM on it that breaks it.

As for the actual problem, the piracy, there are lots and lots of ways people have come up with to deal with it. Some work, some don't, but at the moment most of what's in effect punishes the paying customers and doesn't affect the pirates one bit. If anything, it increases the demand for clean, non-DRM pirate copies. Which emboldens the pirates and, if anything, makes their efforts seem more acceptable to people like Tim and Jane, who just wanted to read a freaking book that they'd already bought.

Down with DRM. There's got to be a better way to protect copyright than crippling the format.


Jim W said...

I recently heard about the Kindle ability to loan an e-book for a two-week span. I thought it was a terrific idea. I wonder if the lent book becomes disabled in the owner's library while it's loaned out...

I've recently looked into Amazon's Kindle library for a handful of titles to decide if I might start buying from them but NONE of the titles I wanted were available, so... I guess I'll stick to good ol' fashioned bricks of bound type-written paper for now!

Tegan said...

Yup, the book is disabled in the original library during the lending term. Unfortunately, the friend *really* has to read it in those two weeks, because each book can only be lent once, ever. And only certain books can be lent, so if you want to lend a book and the publisher doesn't allow it, tough.

I wouldn't have a Kindle now if I hadn't been given one... and I have a 1st Gen, so lending isn't an option to me anyway.

Snard said...

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not a proponent of DRM; I don't like the idea of it, but so far I haven't been bitten by it, hence my first reaction to these sorts of issues is to try to ask myself "what is the normal remedy for this situation?"

Since we are talking about a husband & wife who want to share a book, this doesn't really sound like someone who wants to "share" the book with an acquaintance. I bought a Nook for my wife over the holidays, and their store has DRM. However, they also allow a reasonable number of devices to be connected to one account. Hence, her Nook, my PC and my iPod Touch are all registered devices, and I can access the books we've bought for the Nook on all of them, concurrently.

My main concern on DRM would be if I purchased a number of books from some vendor, and then that vendor goes belly up and my books vanish, or if I decide to move to another platform that doesn't support my current book format. While that's a valid concern, I'm sure that I would be able to take the same tack that you did - dip into the torrents and find a de-DRM'ed copy of the book that I bought. I don't consider that an option I would want to exercise, but it's there.

By the way, belated congrats on acquiring a Kindle :)

Jonathan L. Miller said...

That's one of the big problems I have with ebooks and streaming music. Software, ok, sure, I'll buy the whole "I own a license, not the program itself." (I don't like it, but I'll buy it.) Books and music are not software, plain and simple and they shouldn't be treated that way. If I buy a book, I may not own the copyright, but I do own the book (or CD, for that matter).

It just bugs the hell out of me--not just from the DRM angle, but from the "license to allow use of a book" kind of thing.

Tegan said...

Snard: The biggest problem is people who don't have technical expertise. They've got enough knowledge to register a device once they've been talked through it step by step with a nice instruction guide, but figuring out how to register a second device weeks later is hard to do.

And when they aren't even sure where they purchased the book, and therefore where they need to register the other device to redownload the book... well...

DRM punishes people who don't understand computers. It doesn't touch the pirates at all.

Jonathan: Me too. Hence the rant. And I am sick of people telling others to "read the license"! like they do over on the Kindle forum. The average person does not read the small print, and when they are hit by some nonsense provision of it, they blame the small print and not themselves. Do businesses really think it's a good idea to anger all their customers?