E-Guns Blazing, Part 2: What DRM Has Become for You, the Reader
J.C. here again. Hopefully by now some or most of you who caught my last commentary about DRM (Digital Rights Management) have taken time to check out the articles I linked. Maybe some of you went further and sought out other viewpoints (rather than just opinions) on the topic, for you shouldn’t assume that those articles present all there is. As for myself, obviously I can only offer you my opinion, perhaps lacking the necessary level of support to turn it into a viewpoint. Yes, verifiable support is the difference between a viewpoint and just an opinion; some of you should know that old vulgar simile about opinions and everyone having one. That being said, I’ve a brief time window this morning to ramble on a bit…
DRM, as it is used today, is no longer about protecting the legal rights of a product’s creator (author) and/or producer (publisher). It should be, but it isn’t. Like any authors, Barb and I want our intellectual properties protected, for those are how we try to make a living; if that fails, we are out of a job, or at least the one we really want.
We also feel strongly that our publisher has that same set of rights, as our chosen business partner in shared commercial endeavors. This includes their employees and staff, from editors to copyeditors, promotional and packaging staff to cover artists and designers, and so on. They all have to make a living by the success of products sold legally and fairly in free enterprise within an open market.
But what if that market isn’t really open anymore? What if free enterprise has become a mere saying, an empty rally call used in outrage over limits on retail enterprises to do anything at all… even something that step upon the rights of customers to truly own what they pay for?
The manipulation, appropriation, and twisted use of terminology —words — has become a plague, a form of biological warfare in the information age, that has spread beyond the mouths of politicians, potentates, and pundits. That’s a topic for another time. More to the point is understanding how DRM really works… and that the free market in the ebook world isn’t free, and that even authors and publishers have limited choices in what to do about it.
In principle, DRM is the encryption of access to a digital property by the use of encryption keys. These keys are used via an account you establish for buying digital products like an ebook. I am simplifying quite a bit, and anyone might actually argue that I’m a bit off the mark. I make no apologies for this, for the use of DRM is more to the point rather than all the technical details. The key factor is who sets those encryptions keys.
If the publisher and/or author were to do so, it could have been somewhat like the ISBN numbers with which we’re all familiar, a kind of shared system statement of rights of ownership. Thereby it could protect the rights of the product’s creator and/or producer while protecting your right to access that one copy of the product that is your property in any legal way that you have with print books. Notice that I said “if,” for that isn’t how it works with ebooks.
The DRM protections on your ebooks are not created and controlled by authors and publishers; they are created and controlled by the retailers or vendors. It sounds like it should be the same thing to the same purpose, but it isn’t in either case. Each vendor uses its own set of encryption keys… aside from sometimes using different formats for the content in an identical product sold elsewhere.
The types of encryption keys used could be two, three, or even more, and only some of those are based on your customer information… only some of them have to do with your legally purchase and owned copy. Sometimes the information used is questionable, as one vendor has been known to use your account’s credit card number as one encryption key for what you purchase; not really a wise choice in this day and age, and I think you can guess why. But overall, if the same personal account information you entered at one vendor matched what you provided to other vendors, in theory you should have matching encryption keys for all ebooks you buy wherever.
Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? Couldn’t you then buy ebooks anywhere and always be able to open them by entering your account info in your preferred ereader device or app? You certainly could, but that’s not how it works… not how vendors want it to work and rigged it.
Vendors also assign their own encryption key or keys on top of those based on who you are as a customer. They use their own vendor specific key and often assign a key for the specific serial numbered ereader device you may be using to read your ebooks. Do you see what this does?
Any ebook you buy then requires one or two encryption keys to open it that neither you nor the author/publisher assigned, knowingly or not. You can only open that ebook in a device you purchased (or the free app that you downloaded) from that specific vendor; the product is inextricably linked to one vendor’s system. Getting the picture yet?
DRM was once envisioned as a way for people to buy digital products, have the legal ownership to use and enjoy such, while still protecting the creator’s and/or producer’s intellectual and commercial rights. It was supposed to be an extension of that copyright information you see in a print book but for an age in which a physical product wasn’t present and the virtual product was at greater risk for theft.
Now to be honest, since the advent of the internet, print books were never [more] secure; that is a lie. Anyone who says so is flat out daft, and an ignorant imp to be banished! Print books weren’t secure even before that, it’s just that the information age… or rather the digital age… made text piracy more efficient.
In my past work in an IT consultancy, part of what I did on the side was to monitor trends in illegal activity where information access and disbursement was at stake. Part of my work was connected to intra/extranet data management and access via web interfaces. In combining that with wanting to be an author on the side, obviously I was interested in the theft of book content, though it was highly unlikely and far more difficult to steal data out of any system the consultancy built for its clients. For a pertinent example during the time I was transitioning between IT, teaching online college English courses, and then slowly becoming a “professional” author, I was witness to one telling event.
From the time that the third Harry Potter book appeared on the shelves in the first singular store worldwide (as a physical print book), it was on the internet in four or five different digital formats… in under two hours. Some claimed the first format was out there in under 45 minutes.
And no, I didn’t download it. This is what concerns publishers and authors deeply. This is one impetus for why the DRM model of the music industry was adopted by the publishing industry, though ultimately DRM is a failure in more than one way. In fact, for those of us who have actually monitored the DRM structure and implementation itself, it is and always will be one of the easiest forms of encryption to crack. I won’t explain why; I’m not going to be party to how it’s done outside of you using your legitimate purchase account information to legally read your ebooks on any device you own. Not that you really can do that at present without personal effort. Now back to that ebook you just bought a while ago…
Because each vendor assigns its own encryption key(s) (and usually a device serial specific key as well), you have no hope of ever again purchasing books like you used to do in physical stores… or even as you do with online vendors for print books. Unlike those physical stores, you cannot shop at multiple online bookstores and buy whatever ebook, wherever you want… even if you are obviously the same person by identity and have set up accounts with the same purchase information wherever you go.
So what’s the true purpose of DRM? It isn’t about protecting author and publisher rights anymore, because it is very limited in that if the author/publisher is not the one setting the DRM keys. Print books may have required more technology to illegally reproduce, or the same (but less) to scan and distribute illegally in electronic format, but the capability to do so was always there… and it was used. In the digital age, it’s even easier now to accomplish the same thing, so again I ask you, what is the true purpose of DRM?
It’s about locking in customers, and you now know this if your didn’t already.
You cannot buy an ebook from more than one vendor unless you have the free apps and separate accounts (unless, ridiculously, you have multiple ereader devices) for almost every ebook vendor. Add in the fact that not all vendors even use the same ebook format (AZW, MOBI, EPUB, PDF, etc., though EPUB is the international standard).
Yes, there are some exceptions, but they aren’t many in count and often aren’t convenient to use. DRM has become like the lock-ins we find in US based phone, internet, and digital television services, only worse. It is international as well, and from another perspective, “free market” has become a lie in this industry, especially in the USA. When it comes to ebooks, the only free choice is which vendor to whom you will give up your right to shop freely.
So what is the solution to this, how can the solution be implemented, and who can do it? Honestly, since the original purpose of DRM has been subverted, the solution would be to start over; we know that’s not going to happen. As an option, you could start shopping at actual publisher sites that sell their own ebooks; then again, some of these may not have everything you want and some need serious reconstruction for viable shopping. And still, that’s not really doing much about it, because we all know you want an outlet where you don’t have to think about which publisher you need to buy from. You just want to buy the book, not the publisher. So even in this, readers are not the solution or the way to implement it.
That leaves only authors and publishers. The only place authors have exclusive control is over works they publish directly themselves. Even then, they have to go through aggregators or portals and must get their works into the vendor sites that are at the heart of this misbegotten mess. And still, they cannot establish their own DRMs in place of the vendors, and neither can the publishers, because the systems accessed by consumers are run by the vendors.
So what’s the answer that some are claiming is the only option? Abandon ebook DRM entirely.
There’s an instant of dead silence and stillness. It seems insane that authors and publishers should have to give up any minor protection of their intellectual property rights just to bring some sanity back… to abandon what was intended to protect such in sensible fashion in order to restore the protection of consumer rights… and end the slavery.
This is a horrible position for either authors or publishers, but more and more are now facing this choice. And it won’t be a thorough solution to their needs; just an abandonment of one option after its viability was lost long ago and corrupted to another purpose. This happened to a degree in the digital music industry, and already one or more publishers of ebooks have taken this step as well.
For vendors using anything but the international EPUB standard, their customers may still be subject to a proprietary lock in, but overall, there’s only so much that any one faction in all of this can do. And for authors and publishers to do this, they have to find faith again in the better nature of their customers, to trust that most people will do the right thing and not redistribute ebooks in any way other than they used to (and sometimes still do) share their physical print books.
It’s a hard step to take, for in our frightened imaginings, the risks of loss and potential damage could come faster and harder than is imaginable. Then again, imagination is always subject to minor (or gross) exaggerations. I’m still hanging on the edge of that thin line of choice, unable to decide for the moment. But if for just one other moment I think as a reader instead of as an author, there I find the fury and fire that some say is my inner nature to charbroil anything vile in my path. My outrage and spite, as a reader, over the slavery of DRM’s warped and mutated form becomes plainly seen in any mirror.
I have more thinking to do, though it’s hard in my presently overloaded schedule. I already know that with novel work and nightmares with our online and offline support systems that I will not get the next Karras tale done in time for the first week of August. Instead, I also need to finish up my notes on another short work of Barb’s that has been waiting in the wings. Then I must desperately come up with and assemble its cover, so that tale can take the place of the August release for Tales from the world of the Noble Dead Saga.
Time to let go of the fury for this moment, though something has got to change in the ebook frontier. There is a lot to do, and as I finish breakfast amid still typing these words, I already know I will not get everything done on my day’s schedule.
And still the demons of DRM rattle my chains, taunting me, as if they think I can’t do anything about them.