I Want My (Digital) Rights To Be Properly Managed

Thursday, 14 January 2010 07:00 by The Lunatic

I bought my wife the new Kindle, from Amazon, for her birthday last week.  I really love the whole idea of eBooks – the Kindle is quite portable (about the size of a regular book) with a gorgeous high resolution surface that is really easy to read. Plus, you can do cool things like set multiple bookmarks, change font size, store hundreds of books at one time, and download new books wirelessly from almost anywhere in the world. It even has “text to speech” built in so it can read to you! Wow. It really is very, very, very cool technology.

But there’s one thing that still bugs me ... we read a lot, my wife and I both go through a few books a month. So it’s quite likely we could spend a few hundred dollars (or more) on a library of Kindle books over the next couple of years. But what guarantee do we have that we will still be able to read them in ten years?  What happens if our Kindle device breaks, and there is no replacement?  Or what if the best device on the market in ten years happens to be a product from another company, which isn’t compatible with our library of Kindle eBooks?

This isn’t just an issue with the Amazon Kindle, it’s an endemic problem with electronic distribution of all published material, whether it’s music, videos, books, what have you.  No one has really figured out how to properly handle copy protection and copyright management yet.

Let’s back up for a little bit.  For the last 500 years or so, ever since Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press, you could buy a book and keep that book pretty much forever – if you took good care of it. If you want to re-read a book in 50 years, you are free to do so – even if the publisher of the book has gone out of business.

You can also loan your book to a friend, or sell it “used” (although publishers, rightfully so, have always hated these practices). But even then, only one person at a time could read the book. Even if a book is re-sold multiple times as used, most likely someone will eventually decide to keep it in their library, taking it “out of circulation” for all intents and purposes.

Starting a little after 1950, technologies were developed that would let you copy a book – you can easily make a usable replica of a book and not pay anything to the publisher.  However, photocopying every page of a book by hand is a very laborious – and expensive – proposition. You are much better off just buying another copy of the book, if it is still in print. When the cassette tape was introduced, copying music was suddenly technically feasible and affordable for the average person – but the quality of the copy wasn’t nearly as good as the original, and it did cost something for the blank cassette.

Even when the Compact Disk was initially released, which brought high quality digital music to the world (one of the most successful new technologies ever invented!) you couldn’t easily copy from a CD unless you played the music out of the analog jack and recorded it on a cassette . It wasn’t a big problem in the beginning, but the record labels were starting to see the writing on the wall.

Now before we go any further, I know that many people dislike the record companies and book publishers and movie studios.  But just because you don’t like them, it does not give you or ANYONE the right to steal content.  It takes a huge amount of time and effort to write a book, it is very expensive to record and promote an album, and don’t even get me started about what it takes to make a movie after what my wife and I went through with funding and producing Muffin Man!  People who put this much time, money, and effort into their creative endeavors deserve to be paid for their work if it is commercially viable.

When you buy a book, you are buying the physical paper pages of that book, and the right to read the content on those pages – but you do NOT have the right to copy those pages and give (or sell, or rent) the copies to someone else. This same concept applies to music, movies, and all published copyrighted content.

But suddenly, just about ten years ago, everyone obtained the ability to “rip” music from a CD and all hell broke loose. Copying music onto a cassette tape took time, cost a little bit of money for the blank tape, and resulted in an inferior copy.  But ripping a CD to your hard drive? Now you have unlimited copies for free, indistinguishable from the original.  Wow. And oh boy, did people abuse this new freedom.

Well, with freedom comes responsibility.  For example, if you are free make a copy of a CD to play on your computer, it is your responsibility to delete the copy if you give away or sell the original CD. You should never, ever, give anyone a digital copy of a track that was “ripped” from a CD.

But people did not act responsibly, piracy ran rampant, and publishers fought back.  DVD’s has a relatively good copy protection, but it was broken after Real Networks bought a company called Xing, which had a legitimate license to the DVD copy protection software. Sometime during the merger of the two companies, someone posted the copy protection source code on the net.  Ooops. Now, everyone can copy DVD’s as well, and bootleg movies are available worldwide. This is one of the reasons why the movie studios are eager to migrate to Blu-Ray. It’s not just that they make more money from a Blu-Ray disk (right now they do, but prices will come down) but the copy protection on a Blu-Ray disk is much more robust.

Online music distributors turned to DRM, or Digital Rights Management as a solution. But let’s face it, no one likes DRM – not even the content producers.  It’s a royal hassle.

There are many different ways of implementing DRM.  I truly believe that Microsoft had the right idea, where the content distributors controlled the license to the content, but the content could be played on any device. The model was this: you buy a song from an online store who has a legitimate right to sell that song, and they provide the music file and a license. That license determines what you can do with the song – copy it to a portable device (or not), burn it to a CD (or not), play it forever (or just for so many days), make a backup copy (or not), play it on three computers (or one, or five). But the nice thing about the Microsoft DRM system, if the usage rights allowed you to copy it to a portable music player, you could use ANY compatible portable player – you were not locked in to a specific model or brand of music player. You had a wide range of choice of devices from Creative, Motorola, Samsung, Sansa, and many others (Including the wonderful Zune player from Microsoft.  I love my Zune!)

So I had bought a few (not too many) songs from some of these early online music stores.  But then, some of these stores went out of business and stopped serving licenses. These songs still played fine until I migrated my music library to a new computer with a bigger hard drive. And then ... arrrrrrrgh, my new computer wasn’t “authorized” to play these songs, and I couldn’t get a license refresh because the store went out of business. So none of the music I had bought from these stores will play on my new computer. And I’m pissed.

Apple on the other hand, took a different approach. You are locked into one player – the Apple IPod.  If you want to buy music from ITunes, you need to buy an IPod. Frankly, I think this is very “anti-consumer” but it’s great for Apple. People are locked in to their products because they’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on their music library and the music won’t play if they buy a different device. This strategy has been exceedingly successful for Apple.

And now, Amazon wants to repeat this exact same strategy with the Kindle. But I can't blame them, they are faced with the same problem - just think how easy it would be to pirate an eBook if it was just distributed as Word doc or a PDF file!

We all trust that Amazon.com and Apple will be around in ten years, so even if we are locked in to their proprietary hardware we’ll still be able to play the music and read the books that we bought. How about in 25 years? 50? Hmmm.

I’m perfectly happy to give up reading books printed on paper. As a reading experience, the Kindle is quite pleasant (although, now I wish I had bought my wife the model with the bigger screen).  My Zune player is perfectly suitable for listening to music, with exceptionally good audio quality. I just wish the industry could figure out a way to distribute digital content (music, books, movies, etc) and make it so that the consumer can easily use the content for their personal enjoyment, on multiple devices, for however long they live - with the ability to share the content with family members, but not distribute bootleg copies. It’s a tough problem.

Comments (2) -

April 3. 2010 18:06

It is no accident that DRM is quite limiting. Content owners do not you to have rights to content forever. CE companies only want you to buy their products. We all need to scream about this but most folks are content with the situation, sigh.


December 17. 2010 04:12

Wow, this is just what I've been looking for. You know - it's quite amazing what technology can do for us these days. We're so blessed to be living in this age where we have access to a large amount of information on our finger tips - some of which is excellent. Maybe rehashed but presentation is what matters. Your perspective on this topic is unique and something I've never thought of before - so kudos to you for presenting such information is such a well presented manner.


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