Benevolent DRM - or perhaps not?

by Tina Holmboe 24th of April 2010 (archive)

A little tweet just dropped into my feed today, courtesy of Norwegian author and journalist Eirik Newth. It referenced Cory Doctorow, which I shall admit having never heard of until this month.

But my lack of interest in SF books is legendary ;)

Mr. Doctorow, however, has written a column in Publishers Weekly, which asks «Can You Survive a Benevolent Dictatorship?» regarding the use, or not, of DRM on digital books and similar material.

This column is well worth a read, even tho it takes a detour into the HTML 5 debacle, for the very, very important questions it raise regarding Apple lock–in, DRM in general, and who control what when it comes to digital publishing.

It’s tricky, and I have few answers to give. There’s one thing tho; more a philosophical point of view than an answer to any earth–shattering question.

In «the future» an electronic book must, regardless of what else it does, keep the basic features of an «analogue» book: it can be bought, sold, lent, gifted, read, and stored in a library.

No–one can come into your home and take your book away. No–one can tell you not to read from it to either yourself or to others, or loan it to a friend. They, whoever they are, can’t censor it, remotely destroy it, or demand anything at all from you and your book.

Except that you can’t pretend it is yours.

My dream world is one in which electronic manuscripts, be they books or articles, are stored in plain text form for posterity, and converted to EPUB for reading on any device that has an EPUB–reader.

And there’s no DRM.

In this ideal world there is nothing what so ever to stop anyone from claiming they wrote a book and sell copy after copy for half the price of what the author needs — or indeed wants.

Nor is there anyone who can tell you that you are not allowed to read the book you bought. Or borrowed. Or was given. Or any platform you damn well chose as long as it has a reader.

Incompatible goals? Are future authors simply going to have to accept that they will lose a certain percentage to people with no respect for the effort they put into their work? Perhaps it’ll be worth it if we cut the middlemen? But good publishers have their role to play.

Would the ideal solution be one where an author has copyright protected by law, but not technical tomfoolery; just as the reader has «readingright» protected in the same fashion?

Would the ideal solution be for us to tell our politicians to write the law to protect the author and the reader, leaving publishers and device factories to survive as best they can?

Disregarding the ideal, one thing remain fixed in my mind: An author must have the right to publish her work in any form she chooses, and a reader the same right to read any work legally acquired.

And frankly, DRM in and of itself doesn’t matter as long as it does not prevent either copy– or reader–right. Today it mucks with people. Tomorrow we need find other solutions.

PS: Removing DRM is against the law in some jurisdictions; but not in all.

PPS: Yes, I know that in some places analogue books are censored. You know who you are. Fix your government and tell the fanatics to stay out of your libraries.

PPPS: The Talkback was interesting — in particular this sparkle of pure, unadulterated genius: «Until we get to 4G, all wireless companies will want smartphones that are locked down».

They want to drop, by 4G, what they don’t do today with 3G, you mean? My compliments, Sir. The logic is impeccable.