DRM Books

In the wake of the first connected digital devices old industries (music, books, film) began attempting to sell their wares in a way that retargeted  a new consumer base. What the music industry, in particular, quickly realized is that selling their music on compact discs (CDs) threatened to pull control from them as content providers, because unlike the physical world, replicating and distributing electrons is trivial.

During the infancy of connected mobile devices, vendors (Apple, Samsung, Sony, etc.) were by necessity forced to make deals with the incumbent media conglomerates who were subsequently only interested in protecting their assets by applying Digital Rights Management (DRM). For those of you who grew up in a less restrictive time, DRM helped enforce copyright by limiting things like play back, downloads, access and distribution. The biggest problems with consuming DRM content is that your ownership becomes predicated on factors you do not really control. We all know that when we rent we essentially have a time limit on the item and some predefined payment agreement. Likewise, if the thing you are "purchasing" requires a non ubiquitous "technology" in order to play or read, then I would humbly submit that you are actually in a convoluted lease agreement rather than an outright purchase.

Fortunately by the time DRM became marginally popular the genie was out of the bottle, the music purchasing public had already realized that CD to MP3 conversions were trivial, and even more frightening to media conglomerates was the growing popularity of music sharing services (like Napster). Three things happened that were (in hindsight) inevitable:

  • The music industry went nuclear on file sharing (customers became criminals)
  • The music industry embraced, and sold, the high quality MP3s that consumers now coveted.

I know that is two bullets but I think this next point needs a bullet by itself:

  • Startups found a way to appropriately price, market, and repackage DRM music.

The last bullet is an important one and may actually have passed people by, as we have once again started renting our music from music corporations. Pandora, Spotify, Xbox Music, iTunes, Beats, etc all have convinced us that renting music is the way to go (you pay without actually controlling or owning the product). This is really everything that DRM was, just by another name.

How did we end up here again? There are two things that make this new DRM work. First the convenience factor cannot be overstated, even as we can store terabytes of data locally, and in the cloud, the patience required to curate an ever expanding collection appears too much for attention challenged consumers. What is also a big factor is the price, you can listen to large libraries of music in a kind of radio format. Each of the music service providers have figured out that by comparing their form of music distribution to broadcast radio, you find consumers more likely to endure adverts or pay a relatively low monthly fee.

The real problem is with digital books

For me the issue of DRM applied to books is more egregious, and problematic simply because our expectation of books for the last 150 years have made book loaning a public good (via libraries). As it currently stands the fact that an open digital format (like MP3) has never been universally accepted for books is telling sign of the power wielded by publishers.

So here we are with a book publishing industry who’s consumer base have never had a really popular open format. This has birthed a system that is so hopelessly controlled by DRM that almost no one resists or even talks about it. Let me look in the mirror here for a moment because I have "purchased" my fair share of digital books. However, I am very selective about which books I choose to "purchase", simply because the price to lease is almost as much as a genuine real world purchase! Vehicle leases, for example, often allow you to get a better vehicle for less money, because in theory you are paying for the depreciation.

We need a way to start seeing digital DRM versions of books as value adds and not the veritable item itself. My new strategy is that I am willing to long term lease a book that I probably will not read again or that I am casually reading in general (this includes magazines). For books that have some greater significance (emotional, technical, or otherwise), that I may want to read again or pass on to others, my firm choice remains purchasing a physical book.

These are my steps to determine if I am leasing a digital "purchase":

  • Do you need some specific hardware to consume your media?
  • Do you need some specific version of an OS or software?
  • Do you need to authenticate in order to consume (to verify your ownership with the DRM servers)?

If you have answered yes to any of the above, you are in a convoluted rental agreement and the only other questions you should consider is when that agreement expires, and whether the cost-value proposition makes sense to you.

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