Thursday, March 26, 2009

eBook DRM Rant

The setup: I wish to purchase an ebook. I own a Sony Reader, which is a useful device for reading ebooks. (It's much slimmer than books, for one thing; it fits more or less comfortably in a large pants pocket.) So I go online, search for the book I wish to purchase, and quickly descend into hell.

First, I feel compelled to touch on the price of the ebook. I know for a fact that the entire process of creating my copy of the ebook, and transferring it to my computer, costs the website less than the process of me actually purchasing it. So why is it that ebooks nearly always cost the same amount as a paperback copy of the book? As a consumer, it grates on my nerves a bit when the price of an item is so obviously arbitrary. I like to think that prices have some relation (however tenuous) to what the item actually cost to produce.

But, this isn't so bad, right? I mean, once I have a digital copy of the book, it'll never go bad, and I can keep it for as long as my backups will last, while it takes up no space. Isn't that better than a real book?

Welcome to the bizarro-world of DRM, where publishers will go to great lengths and spend millions of dollars to make their products less useful. DRM is basically a way to make sure you only access the content enclosed within it in approved ways, which usually means only being able to access it from a single program. So, a book that you could previously read in any of dozens of programs that read PDFs, for instance, can now only be read using Adobe Digital Editions (tm) on an approved computer. Because it would be a Terrible Thing if people could do what they wanted with content that they've purchased, content creators will go to astonishing lengths to prevent DRM schemes from being reverse-engineered, up to and including prosecution under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (Thanks, Bill Clinton!)

So, back to my quest to legally purchase an ebook. There are multiple formats for ebooks, and naturally, all of them are completely incompatible with each other. Some online bookstores only allow you to purchase books in a single format, but is particularly enlightened, as they allow you to choose from three formats. There's a PDF version (with DRM), a Mobipocket version (with DRM), and a Microsoft Reader version (with DRM). Care to guess which version will work properly with my ebook reader?

The correct answer, unfortunately, is D. None of the above. Since secretly hates their customers, they never actually mention this, of course; I'm expected to infer it from their careful omission of standalone ebook readers from their help pages on compatibility. Now, at this point I have a few options. I could pirate the book, of course - this is illegal, but it has the distinct advantage of actually working. I could also purchase it legally, and then remove the DRM - this is extremely illegal, not guaranteed to work, and they are constantly changing DRM schemes to make this difficult. Somebody will manage it (where do you think pirates get their ebooks from originally?) but I might not.

Piracy has several other advantages. The file I would end up with is way more useful than a legally purchased one - I can use it on any computer or device, convert it to any format, make as many copies as I want, and be assured that it won't suddenly stop working at some point in the future, for no reason at all. Compared to a non-DRMed ebook, a DRMed ebook is basically worthless.

So let's review: Without DRM, I could get a pirated copy of the book. With DRM, I can still get a pirated copy of the book, and I have a compelling reason to. I honestly cannot come up with any reasoning that could possibly explain publishers' attitudes to ebook DRM. They have taken an entirely new medium, one with incredible potential, and managed to make it so much less useful than what already exists that nobody even wants it anymore. It's like they are determined to fail at all costs. (And if you ever happen to see somebody tell me that ebooks are a bad idea because look, people aren't buying them, and you see me go into a spitting rage, well, now you'll understand why.)


Frank Church said...

Deep thought: What if you want to read the complete works of Henry James? How much do they cost? I'm naming James because all his work is public domain (he died in 1916). Anyway, if they are free, you could always work through those. He wrote quite a lot. :D

...but yeah, I know about DRM. Yeah, it sucks. (Shoutout to Fritz Hollings here.) And books shouldn't cost as much on an e-book. So, I am compelled to ask: what's the point of an e-book at this time? Yeah, it can store lots of books on one device, but you're paying too much for books. And you don't want to do anything illegal. ;) And no one wants to read the complete works of Henry James, at least I don't.

Æther said...

eBooks are a bad idea because look, people aren't buying them.

*Waits for spitting rage*

Seriously, though, I'm only annoyed by these sorts of protections with iTunes being annoying and making it difficult to turn off its protect thing that only lets me run my music from there. I wouldn't even have iTunes installed if it weren't so easy to move files to my iPod with it.

I like to have my real books. The feel of paper and the ink wearing off on my fingers can't be replicated by an eBook reader. Plus, I don't like my books to be battery operated.

P. Static said...

Frank Church:
So yeah, they're all free. :3

Æther: Assuming the battery life issues could be addressed (because they can), would you say that the "feel" of paper outweighs the advantages of being able to carry all your books wherever you go? :/

Æther said...

How do you propose addressing the issues? What if I'm backpacking for two weeks and want my book. I certainly refuse to carry a heavy and expensive extra battery. The book is probably lighter and less likely be be a major purchase destroyed by water like the reader. There isn't an LCD screen that can be smashed, either. I don't want to carry all my books wherever I go anyway. Knowledge is weighty. Knowledge is power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Carrying all your books around will corrupt you, or at least your files. QED!

P. Static said...

Solar chargers would work. Or heck, even a hand-cranked thing would cut it, it's not like an ebook reader takes a lot of power. XD Electronics can be made waterproof, and e-paper screens are much more appropriate for this kind of thing than LCDs (and can be made pretty durable). Also, absolute power equals absolute fun. :D

Æther said...

Now you're telling me to hand crank or charge my books via sunlight (which, by the way, takes forever or racks up the price way more). Sorry, I just think the eBook reader is something way too complicated for an already simple thing. I don't know what e-paper screens are, but they sound suspect. Are you seriously telling me that there's a product that meets these specs anyway? What of the effect of the batteries on the environment? They're far worse than that of chopping down a tree for paper.

Æther said...

Sorry, I should point out that my last post was mostly just a troll and that you've convinced me. :)