The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture



I usually avoid discussions of digital rights management (DRM) as much as possible. It’s a Gordian Knot. We can spend a lot of time and energy painstakingly untangling it, never to find a form of DRM that keeps everyone happy. Or we can  end DRM altogether with one bold stroke (“mission accomplished!”) only to discover that cutting the knot takes longer than we expected and is more complicated than we first thought. Either way, my sense is that we will continue to have some kind of hybrid situation — with some e-books ‘protected’ by DRM and some not — as we both cut and untangle all the issues…

And for all that I’m often left wandering if DRM really matters as much as we tend to think it does. Do people outside of our strange intersection of media and technology really care about it as much as we do? Are there other pressing issues that we should direct energy towards?  I have this nagging sense that as we agonise over the do-we-don’t-we of DRM, most people just want to read good books.

Nevertheless, the great DRM debate has come to the fore again as a result of Michael Bhaskar’s seemingly mild assertion that DRM Is Not Evil on Pan Macmillan’s The Digitalist blog, which resulted in the (predictable) slew of comments.  Michael has now posted a response which has garnered another slew of comments.  It’s all worth reading if you can summon the energy and want some insight into the issue (although I don’t think anyone mentions foreign rights, but perhaps some one will get to that yet…)

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  1. Does anyone care about DRM outside of the tech clique? Yep. But when regular people encounter rights restrictions where they don’t expect them it is known by another, less technical, name — a bad customer experience.

    I just got a library card. I downloaded an audio book. I couldn’t sync it to my ipod for subway listening. My mom could have had this problem, but she wouldn’t have known DRM had anything to do with it.

    As people who know, I think we have a responsibility to tell other people exactly what DRM is and how it works (without the euphemistic BS). Books with DRM are rentals not sales and if we could simply acknowledge that to ourselves and then tell others we could avoid misunderstandings like 1984 kindlefail. We need to keep talking about the issue just to get the facts straight.

  2. Thanks Mark. My really flippant point was that maybe we should worry more about publishing so many bad books than about protecting them all with DRM…

    So yes, of course you are right. People can and do have bad customer experiences as a result of DRM even if they don’t know that DRM is the root cause.

    But, are these the majority of experiences or are they the ones we hear about most?

    Of course, one bad customer experience is one too many, and there is a good chance that if we don’t start addressing these issues as an industry the number of bad experiences will increase as the number of e-book readers increases.

    The recent Kindle debacle is a great example of the kind of awful things that can happen. But there is probably an argument to be made that it wasn’t so much DRM as the assumption that Orwell was in the public domain in the first place — and Amazon’s decision to delete the books (as made possible by their DRM) when it was contested — that was the problem.

    So I think, in a way, this whole Kindle thing also illustrates my point that a publisher removing DRM is not as simple a decision as it initially seems. It can take a lot of time and knowledge (and therefore money) to decide whether you are even in position to make your books DRM-free in the first place…

  3. And I just wanted to add to my previous comment that I think your point about clarity is key. If we are going to persist with at least some DRM (which I think is likely), then we have to be clear about how it works and and why. How much of this is the responsibility of the vendor and how much is the responsibility of the publisher, I don’t know…

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