Digital Goons

Tue 29 December 2009 | tags: Rants DRM

I've been doing a lot of thinking about freedom and Digital Rights Management (DRM) recently. I've become enamored with checking out more eBooks as of late (the swelling book shelves of the apartment can attest to that. ;) ) There are a number of bookstores out on the internet that sell ebooks, but like most things digital, the devil is in the details, or rather in the DRM protectin those ebooks. Unlike the music industry, which has had it's proverbial ass handed to it over the issue of copy protection, the book-publishing industry has had no such epiphany. There are likely several reasons for this disparity. It's easy to circumvent DRM legally by ripping a CD, where converting a book digitally would require either destroying a physical copy by scanning it page-by-page, or require someone to sit down and type in the words on the page. Whatever the reason the book publishing industry has an amazing array of different schemes to make it more difficult to read a book on a computer or other device. Worse, some publishers feel it necessary to make you pay for each format you want to use; want a PDF and a copy for another portable device? That'll be the price of two copies, please. What really stood out for me was the arrogance of it all. It's like the book-publisher decides "OK, you want to read this book? Well, we can't just have that, You'll need to tell us what device you want to read it on, and you'll need special software to get it on that device (can't have you willy-nilly reading that book anywhere else!), and we'll need to make sure you can't print it, or use copy / paste to take notes from it (yes, this is a restriction some eBooks have. Imagine writing a review for a book for a book on your computer that you can't digitally quote from)". It's interesting that in order to have digital permission for a book, I need to allow a publisher to dictate to me the terms of the agreement. They're making lifestyle decisions for me, and I'm paying for the privilege. This really struck a chord with me when I realized that the eBooks that I bought for my old Palm device were essentially worthless to me now that I no longer carry the device. Sure, there are PC readers for the format that was used, but they're Windows only, so I'd have to make another lifestyle decision in order to read them. Would you accept someone telling you how to read your paperback books at home? "You'll need to read them on the couch only; no reading in bed, or you might get a crick in your neck. Also, you'll need to read it with this reading lamp that costs $50 retail. It has the proper lumens for reading by. And, hope you understand Spanish because that's the only language we're publishing in". Would you accept those conditions?

Recently this sort of digital lifestyle incursion bit me hard. JoDee's laptop has a wireless card that I despise with a fiery passion. I'd like nothing more than to yank it out and ship it back to the manufacturer just to have the satisfaction of having it out of the house. So I decided when it crapped out again after the latest upgrade to finally be done with it and buy a new card. I found one cheap enough and made my purchase. Today it arrived, and I happily opened up the computer and gleefully installed the new card. I plugged everything back in, and powered up the machine. This is what greeted me:

"104-Unsupported wireless network device detected"

What that message says, in a nutshell, is that HP in their infinite wisdom has decided that the card that I wanted to use was rubbish, and that only their card (which is verifiably rubbish) is a blessed card, and I should stop trying to defile _my own laptop_ with the new card. Keep in mind that 1. I generally know my way around computers, and 2. I'm not trying anything funny other than replacing one standard part with another standard part. Nope, HP has programmed the BIOS to tell me to go fuck myself if I stray from their path.

DRM in media and software is nothing more than the ability for folks to exercise control over you and your stuff. It's an attempt at ownership of material that you've purchased, and of control over hardware that you use. There are companies that "get it"; most computer book publishers don't use DRM anymore, and offer multiple formats. Several game publishers have PDF files that are DRM-Free (some with watermarking, which I'm perfectly OK with, so long as it doesn't prevent me from using the material). There are a handful of fiction publishers that don't cripple their eBooks. Baen Books ( is exemplary in their stance on freedom in publishing. It's time to ask publishers to stop dictating how and where we use ebooks, and to allow for a more open marketplace to flourish. With rare exception, no bookstore will discriminate against a certain group of customers, yet DRM not only discrimintates, it also excludes people from purchasing and reading books. I urge you to avoid purchasing books from sellers that promote DRM (and while the Kindle is pretty liberal with their DRM, they still have it. Sorry, Rick. :) ) Promoting an open marketplace benefits us all, and allows us as readers, and users to read and ejoy and use books, software, and hardware as we see fit. That's too precious to give up.