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Why Digital Rights Management is a Bad Idea

From whom are you protecting that content? From whom are you protecting that content?

Or The Fine Art of Making your Customers into Criminals

It must have been in 2000 or around there, when I had just three short stories out and electronic books seemed a thing of the distant future or perhaps of the shady present, that I for the first and last time endorsed some form of digital rights management and donated money to Harlan Ellison’s quixotic attempts to hunt down pirates.

Within the year I’d realized not just the futility of these efforts and that I’d not lose any money – not real money I might have earned – to these acts of piracy, and might in fact acquire some new readers (though given the demographics of pirating and reading, this is not highly likely either.)

It didn’t take me much longer to understand the dangers of applying digital rights management to your property and thereby not only making it difficult for the customer to purchase it and enjoy it, but also implicitly accusing your customer of intended dishonesty.

Lest anyone accuse me of endorsing piracy or even having pirated books: I will confess somewhat shamefacedly that I have never in my life attempted to pirate or copy a book that wasn’t legitimately mine.

I am in fact so ridiculously aware of how little most writers make, and how much pleasure they give me that I often try to compensate them for books they were already paid for.  Back in the days when I was dead flat broke and could not afford even a paperback without feeding my family pancakes for dinner for a week, I cruised the “rejects” of the used bookstores nearby every week.  This was the bookshelf where books that were either too battered or too strange to be saleable were abandoned by former owners who couldn’t trade them in for credit.  I spent the early nineties happily reading tattered gothic romances and nineteenth century biology manuals, because it was better than not reading.  Yes, most of those books were awful – but every once in a while I found one that seemed exceptionally well written.  If the author was still alive, I would send a fan letter to the publisher, and inside it a dollar bill, for the pleasure the author had given me.  (I never got an answer, and I wonder how many authors I confused.)

My first run in with Digital Rights Management was not in books, but in music.  I can no longer remember the details, so bear with me.

Like most writers, I often need a specific piece of music to write to.

As I was trying to write the opening of a novel, I realized the “soundtrack” at the back of my mind was of a British album that I’d last heard in the middle eighties.  I also realized having the album would make the chapter easier to write.  So, I start hunting for it, to find it, both used on Amazon in CD, and for download in this small music service that had just been acquired by one of the giants of the field.

I hated spending the (extra) money to have it in electronic right then, but I wanted to send the proposal to my agent the next day.  So I bit the bullet and bought the album electronic.

It downloaded, DRMed and with a password that would supposedly unlock the album.  I tried it.  It wouldn’t unlock.  I tried again.  Still wouldn’t unlock.  I called customer service and was told “so sorry, with our being bought those codes are messed up, so here is the new code.”  I tried that and, ta-da, the album opened, revealing the song titles.  I thanked the customer service representative, hung up, and cued the music to play on the computer.

The first song starts and a pop up appears – the code isn’t right, so they think I pirated the album, and are locking up the rest of the album.

I call customer representatives again.  “It shouldn’t be doing that.”

Two hours later, I realize I will not be able to listen to that music or finish my chapter that day, tell them I want to return the album for a refund, and I order the (much cheaper) used CD from Amazon.

In my mind that experience will always stand for “the joys of Digital Rights Management” and I will always remember my fury at being accused of stealing something I’d in fact gone through a great deal of trouble to purchase.

I’ve heard of people who have gone through the same experiences with books.  In fact, I’ve found myself frustrated trying to buy a digital book that was only available for a device I didn’t own.  If the book has no digital rights management software it is possible to buy it and to convert it to the device you do have.  Otherwise, the book is inaccessible to you and might in fact disappear forever if your device breaks down.

Audible, which I adore, has pulled this sort of thing on me, by their “three devices” rule.  Since they insist on downloading into my computer’s player (where I do not want them) this restricts me to two of my mp3 players, and when one of those broke on me, I had to go through a great deal of trouble to activate another one.