Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cory Doctorow on Digital Rights Management

Cory Doctorow, novelist and former EFF man, breaks it down at LIFT 06. Now I think I get DRM.


csven said...

Needless to say I take issue with Cory's approach. While he's promoting what I consider a selfish militant "it's mine" approach to content, I say we stop fighting for control. If the corporations want control, give it to them... and then walk away from their product.

I also have another problem. After my exchange with him yesterday, I brought myself somewhat up to speed on his arrangement with Tor Publishing (without seeing the actual contract I'm hesitant to say I really know what the arrangement is). Based on what I've read it might seem like his arrangement is a breakthrough to some people, but it's not to me. You see, as I understand it, Tor (and Cory) still exert control over the tangible product. So while they're perfectly happy to allow digital copies, if you decide to make printed copies they have a problem.

How does this work for them? Simple. At the present time there is no compelling, marketable alternative to the printed novel. This is the exact opposite of music which people prefer in digital form. Okay, so what happens? Well, that digital book - even in its entirety - is currently only a sample. One chapter or the whole book, it doesn't matter because people want the dead tree version. So, for the foreseeable future (and outside the market window, after which e-books may become acceptable), the digital versions function as marketing hype. Clever move.

In addition, the Creative Commons license that apparently applies to the printed book, prevents me from printing and distributing his books for any commercial gain. That's control any way you slice it. One could say, "Well, you could print and give them away and not make any profit on them", to which I'd ask whether someone can actually do that unless they're already wealthy "profiteers".

From the practical side, printing a dead tree version is a costly undertaking. And the printer can't recoup the expense through sales. Furthermore, expenses could not - as I understand it - be recouped from any commercial return. So for example, a car dealership could not print books and offer them with their hybrid cars because that book is part of a commercial, for-profit endeavor. If I'm mistaken on this count, I'd appreciate clarification. But I have a feeling I'm right.

The upshot of all this is that Cory (and Tor) are using Inherent Property Rights Management with regard to the printed novels. So tell me, what's the real difference between someone creating an artifial DRM for intangible products and someone relying on IRM in tangible products? None, as far as I'm concerned.

This is all about control, and Cory still has control, doesn't he? Sounds to me like there's at least a bit of hypocrisy in his position.

Woody Evans said...

I don't know anything about Cory and Tor and the shape of the contract, but it shouldn't be surprising in the least that a publisher/author/marketing team will build in controls for physical copies of the book. It's progressive to take the attitude he has toward digital copies, and a step in the right direction. See also what Charlie Stross was able to do with Accelerando [link].

I see Cory's position as consistent -- but working with traditional publishers he still has to work within the bounds of traditional copyright.

There's more to all this -- the traditional model that we're all still under holds a zero-sum view of publishing. "One printed copy leads to one less purchase of the book."

We won't see this model change until there is a viable, pliable, personal, wearable, e-book gizmo that's easy, fun, and useful in all kinds of capacities... an e-book reader thing that's a phone, a pda, etc. This get's into all kinds of usability questions -- we won't be staring at a 4x3 screen for long enough to read a novel.

So by allowing, in some way, the free use and distributioin of digital copies, writers like Doctorow and Stross are setting up the groundwork for the evolution of 'the novel' into other media -- into performances (readings, music, vizual art) that accompany the text and inform the text in some kinda way.

The idea of 'the book' itself has to change. And this shouldn't be read as taking an all-or-nothing view of digital media v. print media. We've still got 'record' stores and you can still find 'records' and discs and cassettes. In fact, really innovative work comes from these dead and dying media in the form of scratching and mixing on the turntable. Books won't disappear either.

Bruce Sterling talks about the 'support system' that backs up and makes possible the physical object in a "post-spime" world -- that support system is beginning to change in publishing. The information is primary over the matter, and this is true in publishing music and books too, but it will take a little while before this is the new model for artists and their publishers (even if they're their own publishers).

Who can overhaul the entire system singlehandedly? Nobody. There must be time for the 'consumers' to react and the model to accomodate they way that they actually use the media licensed/purchased by them.

More ways to use the music you download and the book you read are better than less ways, I think, is what we're getting to here -- the consumer has the right to do what she wants with what she buys, and the unbinding of sneaky 'rights managment' schemes is the way forward. Making this content available and useable in more than one medium is a start.

So. I think Cory's on the right track. He's creating more room for this conversation, even in the realm of traditional print.

csven said...

but working with traditional publishers he still has to work within the bounds of traditional copyright.

Why work with them at all? Why not distribute only digitally and be in the same position as musicians and filmmakers? as the labels and studios?

How can he parade as an anti-DRM activist when he himself profits from a form of rights management? If you wipe away the technological differences, then his position appears to me to be hypocritical. DRM is a form control of intangible distribution. But from what I've read, his license with Tor also exerts control over distribution - inherently through the wealth necessary to reproduce the tangible product, and legally through a different form of license that prohibits some forms of distribution.

How can he lead anything, if his position depends on the continuation of this schizm between tangible and intangible? What will his position be when he writes a novel at a time when the popular method of consumption is the e-book? Will he still want to control it the way he and Tor now control the currently-popular method of distribution? Or will he have sufficiently profitted from his current position as a "leader" such that he's not in the position of the unknown author in that near-future market? Will his Reputation as "the anti-DRM guy" be converted into sufficient street cred that people feel obliged to pay for his work? What about the other authors out there? Will society respect their work? Why, if they don't now honestly respect the work of musicians and artists? Just look at Chinese software companies that have made software especially for their countrymen... and had it ripped off so badly they've gone out of business.

There are issues wrapped up in this that I don't see addressed.

Woody Evans said...

I can't speak to Cory's personal following, reputation as a 'leader', or any of the other stuff... But I definitely don't see the copyright laws that surround a published novel as being in the same league as DRM on a music CD or DVD. It's a different situation. With music, a pirated song doesn't necessarily lead to one-less-bought-CD -- we've seen that, artists have seen it, and the RIAA is beginning to see it. The music industry is having to rebuild itself around the fact of piracy so that it can make money in the post P2P environment. It's differnt for book publishers though. Mainly it's different because there is no analogous popular gizmos (no iPod for books) which has caught on in a big way for readers. Yes, we can e-mail the text of an entire novel to our friends, but, as you say, who wants to read a novel on a screen of any kind?? That market just isn't big enough. It's not happening.

I can't say that once there is a compact and popular e-book gizmo that Cory will change his position in regards to copyright for books -- that question, I think, has been posed to him on your blog, and I don't think he's answered it yet.

But my point is that it's not the same game, it's not the same field. Book publishing still deals mostly with dusty tangible objects, and we can't expect the same standards to be held for the different issues at stake with digital media use.

If I understand you right, your basic concern is: end user rights should be universally respected, or let the whole thing drop.

I just don't think that it is that simple yet. When publishing is forced to change because of an iPod gizmo for books, if such a thing ever happens, then we will all have to worry about similar end-user rights for books.

I think...

csven said...

But my point is that it's not the same game, it's not the same field. Book publishing still deals mostly with dusty tangible objects, and we can't expect the same standards to be held for the different issues at stake with digital media use.

Why not? Intellectual property is - by its very definition - irrespective of medium. The copyright on a book exists whether that book is printed or on the web. It's an idea. It has no tangibility.

If I understand you right, your basic concern is: end user rights should be universally respected, or let the whole thing drop.


My position is that if we're going to use a system for intellectual property, then we need to respect it. Neither side is doing that.

I'm aware that companies break the law. I remember the incident where some legal clerk inserted something extra into a piece of obscure legislation which benefited the corporations, and then how he got a nice job with them after the deed was done. There's plenty of dirty dealings and that isn't likely to stop. But I'm not going to stoop to their level.

The thing is, we need to ensure we don't confuse creators with corporations. We can't justify hacking away protections to content by citing the infractions of corporations, which is what so many - including Cory from what I read - appear to be doing. I'm not going to blame the creator for the mistake of the conglomerate. And that action affects both the corporation and the creator.

Instead, I'll walk away because that's the worst damage I can do to the corporation and the least injury I can do to the creator. The creator can sever ties from the corporation and move on - hopefully to a better partner or maybe direct to consumer. But without consumers, corporations have no market. And without a market, they have no business. That is our power; not breaking their DRM and downloading the content for free. Because as explained earlier, there is value in Attention. Even if a label never gets a dime from selling a song to end users, it can still make money from that song.

I'm advocating that we all show a little respect. I'm advocating educating the market and showing them both where their real power is and what the consequences are of disrespecting the creators. I advocate showing the corporations that we fully understand the leverage we have. That is the way to bring about change; not through threats and not by posting hacks; but by turning our backs on things that we really don't need. And we really don't need this stuff.