Saturday, October 20, 2012

TO DRM or not...I say NOT!

DRM, what is it?  DRM or Digital Rights Management is at its core, copy protection or the prevention of copying by the user though some electronic method.  This method can vary.  Some are more annoying to the user than others.

How did DRM come about?  Well that is a good question and the answer varies depending on who you ask.  In my experience it goes back to the days of the Commodore 64 computer in the late 1980's.  In the early 80's all programs and data were easily copyable, although not many did so since it took a copy program, and lots of time due to the issue of swapping 5.25 floppy disks.  And if you had a dattaset (a type of cassette tape storage device) it would take far longer.

Later on people got into the habit of making backup copies of their programs and sometimes would share them with with a good friend.  When electronic Bulletin Board Systems (early form of forums and file storage one could access though the phone lines) started posting downloadable game or program files, companies started to get worried that no one would pay for their software.  And hence copy protection was born.

At first it was simple and a little bit better copying program could bypass the protection (called a nibbler), and sometimes 'fix' it (this was often done just so that the drive heads wouldn't 'bang' possibly causing damage to the drive this type of protection was one of the most hated by users).  Then later it became more and more sophisticated.  The copy programs increased in abilities as well and a sort of cat and mouse game continued for a few years.  Then the copy protection industry reached a point that the protection could not be dulicated without special "parameters" or patches that would be applied to the duplicate copy to make it work otherwise it would fail.

This new form of cat and mouse continued for a few years until the copy protection industry came up with one of its most insidious version of protection yet: Rapidlok.  This time even the most advanced software copy programs and patches could not make a working copy and you needed special hardware inside your drive along with speed control to make a working copy.  And even then it may take several attempts before you had a working copy.  The worst part of this method: because it was so specific it was extremely easy for a legitimate original copy not to work on a particular drive.  Or the original copy suddenly stop working for no real reason.  This is when users cried out in outrage.  Software they purchased stopped working, and they were unable to make legitimate backups of what they purchased.

I believe this was part of the downfall of the Commodore 64.  Yes the company made bad business decisions near the end, but also people started moving over to other platforms long before.  These platforms did not have any copy protection at all, such as MS-DOS.  And later on Windows.

How does this apply to books?  Well, copy protection is what held back the ebook industry for years.  By the time ebooks were starting to come out, instead of learning from the past several book platforms created methods of protection that were so good that they didn't work for legitimate users.  Many people lost entire libraries when for some reason the books they purchased could no longer be read with the particular software they purchased them on.  Sometimes it was due to a update, other times just due to a glitch and nothing could be done.  As you can imagine this slowed down adoption as there was many cases of bad "nightmare" stories floating around.  And this was the late 1990's, therefore sharing such bad results online reached a far wider audience than in the past.

Another problem was some book platforms just disappeared, almost over night.  And with that all support evaporated.  For many readers it was not a problem right away, but when they had to reinstall their reading software it failed to install properly.  This was either due to the encryption key was on the older computer or somehow was deleted.  With the company gone, their library for all intents and purposes met the same fate as Alexandria.

Thankfully, these days many the DRM methods are far less draconian (in general).  However, I for one, even as a author will never use it on my books.  I say avoid it all costs for several reasons:

First it assumes your customers are thieves, instead of decent paying customers.  How would you like it if you say to your friend, here you go but oh you can't do this this and this because I don't trust you.  I bet you wouldn't talk with that friend for a while, if ever.

Secondly, if they 'pirate' your book, well they wouldn't have bought a copy anyway.  It is not a lost sale.  But, they may decide to buy it or tell someone else about it that does buy it.  Think of it as free advertising.  Of course I don't advocate piracy, but there isn't a way you are going to stop it.  And even if you try you will only alienate your legitmate customers in the long run.

Thirdly, a non-encrypted (DRM Free) books are 'future proofed'.  Software and computers change very quickly.  What is the greatest best system today is old and obsolete in a few months time.  Programs created in the late 1990's generally do not run well on today's versions of windows without tweeks or emulation.  Most book readers like to reread their books they purchased at times, and if the book is open or DRM free they can convert it to whatever format they require.  It is also an advantage to the disabled since they can convert it to a format that works best for them if needed.

And lastly, DRM will be cracked given time.  There is no known way to protect a book (or other content) that can be read by the user that can't be cracked given time.  You see for the user and legitimate purchaser to be able to read your book, they need the decryption key.  This means the key is on their computer or reading device.  Sooner or later someone will figure out this is done, crack it, and make it available to others.  So what does this mean?  You slowed down the pirates perhaps a little bit, but annoyed your legitimate customers as they are not likely to try and figure out how to crack their books.  Most of them just want to READ or perhaps convert your book when they need, not spend long hours jumping though hoops to be able to read or convert it.

In summary DRM is inconvenience at best, and very problematic at worst.  It is just not worth the trouble for authors or their customers.  It creates a rift or wall between you and your readers, and that is the last thing in the universe you want to do.

Don DeBon is the author of Italian Fever.  Currently available in Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Kobo.

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