Saturday, July 26, 2014

What's Wrong with DRM? (or, Then and Now)

So a lot of people are championing the recently added ability to download some DRM-free comics from Comixology, but many others aren't quite sure why it's such a big deal.  I'll try to explain that in a little bit, but first I'd like to share some quotes from this interview I just stumbled upon from last year's Comic-Con with Comixology CEO David Steinberger.  In it he says:
The fact is that our experience is based around the idea that you can buy and read your comics anywhere you want whenever you want. I don't really want to have to have the customer support experience of teaching people how to move a file from their desktop to their iPad and dang it, I'm in the airport, and I can't put a jump drive on my iPad that has all my terabytes of comics.
This is a very understandable point.  They do have a good service, and it seems to work well.  Of course, a lot of their customers think they're buying a product (a comic book) instead of access to a service (permission to look at a comic book through proprietary software), but that's beside this particular point.  Image Comics and Gumroad both do allow customers to copy every digital file they've purchased to Dropbox.  That can still can be confusing but it does make file management and backing things up a whole lot easier.  Steinberger also said:
We have a whole experience from top to bottom, and that does not work with a PDF.
Again, I agree.  I'm glad that they found an elegant and simple way to make it work, which is essentially to leave their (seemingly excellent) reading service alone and allow downloading the backup from the library if the customer wishes.  I think it's funny his saying this just a year before they announced adding the option to go DRM-free, but at least he didn't say anything against stripping DRM in the article.  Instead, he redirected the conversation to the benefits of their service, and he also did good by their suppliers by making it sound like a user experience thing instead of an "evil empire" (the publishers, not Comixology) thing.

Okay, here's another quote, because it segues into my main point here:
We're about expanding the market, and we are not going to expand the market by going more technically scary. We're going to do it by like, "Oh, I didn't even have to think about it." Nobody ever thinks about the files, they understand it's here when they don't have a connection, but they don't go, "Do I need to back that up?" They're just like, "It's there, I'm going to read now," because that's what they are here for, the reading. Not file organization.
"They're just like, 'It's there, I'm going to read it now.'"  Except for the situations, like mine recently, where Comixology wouldn't have been able to put the files where I needed them.  What situation?  Read on, reader!

So what's wrong with DRM?

It wasn't too long ago that I had to spend a few months in a small town for work. I had no home internet (except for tightly-capped cell data) and no wifi at work.  I was downloading comics like crazy from Image (after work with permission) because I could copy them to my tablet on a thumb drive, but it highlighted a big Comixology problem to me: I couldn't manually copy their comics directly from device to device.  Instead I needed to connect my tablet directly to the internet.  I wrote about it here (I might have been nicer about it had I known what was coming down the pipe).  There are a lot of comics I would love to keep up with, but at the time Image was the only one delivering them in a format that met my needs.

That point aside, here's the most pertinent quote from my previous (linked above) post:
DRM only hurts paying customers.  ONLY.  Pirates already have it, DRM free, and it's already available for all the world to torrent if they choose.  This is true for movies, video games, music, comics, tv shows, etc.  DRM only hurts paying customers.  No, that's not quite right.

DRM punishes paying customers.  And what are we being punished for?  Why, for trying to do the right thing, of course.  For trying to do business with companies that don't respect us.  Companies that see us as criminals, even though it's completely obvious that the criminals are on other web sites, choosing to not pay a cent.
So the first thing wrong with DRM is that it's logically unsound.  Everything DRM-protected on Comixology is probably available on a torrent site (and the comics that aren't probably weren't popular enough for anyone to want to pirate them.  Sorry). It's already pirated.  It's done.  Locking a safe after it's contents have been stolen make no sense.  Of course it's also disrespectful, like being followed around by security in a department store.  I've only spent like half a thousand dollars on comics this year guys but thanks for the suspicion anyway.

On top of that it's ineffective.  Netflix and Comixology prevent you from saving the files you're viewing, but they don't stop you from recording them.  Anything on my screen I can record, either with software or a camera.  There are people right now who back up their Comixology comics using screen grab software, I promise.  Google it.  Why?  Because they understand that something which is only in the cloud or encrypted on their device can be lost to them due to forces entirely beyond their control.

One of the biggest problems with DRM is that businesses just move on.  Comixology is huge, and Amazon just bought them so they're probably going to get better (they're already better, they're allowing DRM-free books!).  But many other DRM-laden services have pulled up stakes and ran, leaving content "owners" empty handed (or at least greatly inconvenienced).  I'm not only talking about fly-by-night companies.  Sony has done this, Microsoft.  Apple, to a degree.

Remember MSN Music?  It was shuttered when it couldn't compete with iTunes and was replaced with the Zune marketplace.  Users could still listen to their purchased music after the activation servers shut down, but they wouldn't be able to copy tracks to any new devices.  That's great, if you're still using the same computer you were using in 2008.  Walmart did this too, by the way.  They did point out that you could still keep your burning it to a CD.  How nice of them.  If Comixology fails what's its corollary to burning music to a cd?  Saving screen grabs, I guess.

And there's Sony shutting down the PSP comic store.  You could back the comics up, but as far as I can tell you can't transfer those comics to any other devices.  I guess it was called the "PSP Comic Store", after all, so what did they expect?

Or remember  It was a really cool music store and streaming service where you could pay a small fee to stream an album as much as you wanted (presumably paying artists more than Spotify and Pandora were) or you could outright buy the tracks.  It would also let you stream any music you already owned from their servers.  What went wrong?  Oh, Apple bought it and shut it down.  So much for unlimited streaming, yeah?  See, even successful services go under, paradoxically because they were successful.

As a quick side note, have I mentioned that removing DRM from media increases sales? Shown here in the Kindle store, shown here in the music industry.  Also piracy doesn't seem to be as bad as businesses would have us think.  It doesn't hurt box office revenue, and the more music people download illegally, the more they buy. Or, as Mark Waid said: "I will go to my grave not buying the baloney that every pirated comic was a lost sale."  It's a topsy-turvy world, isn't it?

Steinberger had a point when he talked about the files being confusing to some customers.  Absolutely, I know many people who don't know how to backup their files, or probably what that even means.  But some people must have hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of comics in their Comixology accounts.  Imagine how quickly that confusion would have turned to anger if say Apple bought them and not Amazon, and the site was shut down and all their customers' libraries were gone forever.

In that interview Comixology's David Steinberger also said this:
The idea that was said in a couple of articles that an earthquake could take us offline just doesn't understand the technology behind how that works.
Because it's not just an issue of services closing down for good, there's also the issue of technical difficulties.  It's likely an earthquake couldn't take Comixology out, they've probably got space rented on servers all over the country for redundancy.  But a Marvel comics promotion could (and did) take the service down.  That meant a service interruption for all users.  A mere inconvenience and nothing more, surely, it but still makes one realize that no system is one hundred percent stable.  After all, corporations aren't flawless.  I would expect Adobe's Creative Cloud to be solid, but they recently had a twenty-four hour long outage.  Shit happens, sometimes serious shit, like Microsoft accidentally losing Sidekick users' data years ago.  Don't app developers know better now?  Of course, they always know better.  But accidents happen all the time.  Not to mention denial of service attacks.

More food for thought:  remember when Amazon sold copies of 1984 they didn't have the rights to, and then, tee hee, they deleted them off people's Kindles, notes, annotations and all?  Copies were later restored (as I recall, I couldn't find a source), but Amazon shouldn't have been able to delete them to begin with.  The New York Times wrote:
Amazon’s published terms of service agreement for the Kindle does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content.” 
Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer’s home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle.
“It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon,” said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce.
Kind of shitty, yeah?  Like I said, food for thought.  I hope I've at least done a passable job of explaining the issues (or my issues at least) with media using DRM schemes.  Right now comics (and video games) are having the same fight the music industry was having a almost a decade ago.  DRM'd music files went away as the populace became more informed (probably as they got burned by closing services, too).  Thanks to Comixology (and Image and the Humble Store, and many others I'm sure), we're one step closer to leading comics down that path.  I can't wait until I can buy Transmetropolitan DRM free, and Preacher, and Powers, and a dozen other series that I'd love to own without taking up space in my home or requiring a third party's continual permission to read.

tl;dnr - DRM is ineffective, it's disrespectful, it punishes paying customers and it hurts sales.  It's something you may not care about now, but once a service is closed or sold to the wrong company then actually owning your files will become a huge concern.

Til then,


Friday, July 25, 2014

Um, is Dynamite DRM-free?

Edit:  I reached out to Dynamite Comics and they said they plan to offer all their titles as DRM-free, but it's an ongoing process.

I've already written at length about select publishers on Comixology going DRM-free.  Dynamite was announced as one of them.  Well I was checking out Dynamite's catalog, planning on grabbing Gail Simone's Red Sonya run.  Then I saw Ennis and Robertson's The Boys is on Dynamite too.  Hmm.  I figured my bank account would never recover.  Then I looked for that little icon signifying a DRM-free copy would be made available and it wasn't there.  These Dynamite titles don't seem to be DRM-free.

That's okay, maybe they're not participating due to being older titles or licensed works, yeah?  There were some books on Top Shelf that weren't DRM-free either.  So I went through and clicked randomly on Dynamite titles.  Maybe five or so books per store page, I don't have time to check every title.

Not one of them was marked as DRM free.  Is this a work in progress, or did they just get all this extra publicity at ComiCon for having a mere handful of DRM-free titles?

I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's a work in progress.  The Green Hornet run that was on one of the Humble Bundle sales (DRM-free) wasn't DRM-free on Comixology (unless I mixed up the volumes, I don't read it so that's possible).

So once again people, keep an eye out, make sure a book is DRM-free before you buy it regardless of publisher (but so far Image seems to be consistently DRM-free, as one would expect).

Of course this is why it would be nice to be able to browse only DRM-free books, to see what's really on offer without getting excited and then becoming disappointed.  In the meantime I've got some of the books wish-listed, I'll keep an eye on their digital rights status.


Madman Digital Chronology (Comixology)

Now that I can get a much larger selection of Image's catalog DRM-free through Comixology I've started nosing around series I've been meaning to get into.  Here are my notes on Madman's chronology, and the corresponding links from Comixology.  (Posted here so that as I buy/read my way through them I have a handy reference to see what's next).

I pulled the publication history from Wikipedia and included links and prices (as of today).  I've changed their order somewhat for easier volume grouping.  I've underlined the ones I moved temporally.

Creatures of the Id one-shot (Caliber Press). Black and white. October 1990.
This story is listed as "Madman: For the Record" 99 cents.
Madman #1-3 (Tundra Publishing). Black, white and blue. 1992.
Madman Adventures #1-3 (Tundra Publishing). Full color. 1992–1993.
Both of these are in Madman: Volume 1. $11.99
Madman Comics #1-20 (Dark Horse Comics). Full color. 1994–2000.
Issues 1-11 are in Madman: Volume 2. $11.99 
Issues 12-20 (as well as the Super Groovy Special below) are in Madman: Volume 3, $11.99
Madman King-size Super Groovy Special (Oni Press). Full color. July 2003.
In Madman Volume 3 (linked above) 
Savage Dragon #83-85 (Image Comics). Full color. 2001
If you're a completionist here they are: 83, 84 and 85. $1.99 apiece.
Madman Picture Exhibition #1-4 (AAA Pop Comics). Full color. 2002.
This plus some new material in: Madman: 20th Anniversary Monster, $11.99
The Atomics #1-15 (AAA Pop Comics). Full color. 2000–2001.
It Girl one-shot (Oni Press). Full color. May 2002.
Spaceman one-shot (Oni Press). Full color. July 2002.
Mr. Gum one-shot (Oni Press). Full color. April 2003.
Madman Atomic Comics #1-17 (Image Comics). Full color. 2007–2009.

All of these listed from The Atomics to Madman Atomic Comics are in the Madman: Atomica! collections (follow the links to see what's in which volume):
Madman: Atomica! Part 1, $10.99
Madman: Atomica! Part 2, $10.99
Madman: Atomica! Part 3, $10.99
All New Giant-Size Super Ginchy Special! (Image Comics). Full color. April 2011.

Right here, $5.99
What's missing?  A few titles, mostly crossovers:
  • Grafik Muzik #1-4 (Caliber Press). Full color in #1-2; black and white in #3-4. 1990–1991.
  • Superman/Madman #1-3 (DC Comics/Dark Horse Comics). Full color. 1997.
  • Nexus Meets Madman one-shot (Dark Horse Comics). Full color. 1996.
  • Madman/The Jam #1-2 (Dark Horse Comics). Full color. 1998.

So there you have it, the vast majority of the Madman universe for about $94.  Oh wait, there's more!  I almost forgot the spin-off series, It Girl and the Atomics.  12 issues in two volumes (one - $9.99 and two - $14.99).  This takes the total to about $119.  It is a good sized run though, and man that artwork is just amazing.  Don't let the covers fool you, the art inside It Girl and the Atomics is of a different style.  It's more contemporary, but still very good.

I'll probably work my through at my own pace, buying as I go.  Of course, if there's an Image-wide sale I may have to snag them all at once.

Til then,


Comixology, Amazon and Apple

While I was trying to find a list of all the publishers going DRM-free on Comixology (so I can buy their comics, of course) I stumbled onto this article by The Verge.  This line tickled me (bold mine):
The company notes that all self-publishing clients can immediately choose to offer DRM-free backups through Comixology Submit. The new feature is solid evidence that Comixology is listening to its users. It's a shame the company and parent Amazon won't budge on their refusal to give Apple a 30 percent cut of sales, but at least now you actually own some of those comics you're buying.
Is it really?  Is it really a shame that Comixology doesn't want to give Apple 30% of their profits as some kind of tax for having a store that people want to use on their iDevices?  iOS users can still purchase comics through their web browsers and then read them using the Comixology app, by the way.  It's a pain, but it's worth it for more money getting to the store infrastructure and the creators it supports, isn't it?

This is one of those cases where Apple was there first, they had market domination, and once upon a time they could demand these things.   But now that there are a handful of other viable mobile OS's that have terms that are actually fair, Apple's charges just seem draconian and ridiculous (as opposed to exploitative, how I viewed the charges when Apple was number one).  Especially since Comixology is big enough that it's probably hosting many people's entire collections, and a better app on Android could mean someone getting a Transformer or a Tab instead of an iPad the next time around.  Oh, and people should also consider that Comixology doing away with in-app purchases doesn't just save them money, it also circumvents Apple's shitty content restrictions.  The iPhone is a great piece of hardware running a great piece of software, but they can still stay the fuck out of my library thank you very much.

I have no issues with The Verge or the author of the quoted article, it's just one of those statements where I felt I saw bias blatantly bleed through.  Sorry you can't buy comics in the easiest way, but consider placing at least some of the blame on Apple for thinking that 30% of all sales (for merely being a popular platform) is fair. 


PS The Washington Post had a similar article with this note at the bottom, which I thought was funny:
(Disclosure: Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post. But you knew that.)
 Actually, I didn't (probably because I don't really care).  Good to know.

Comixology allows DRM Free Downloads (if the publishers say it's okay)!

EDIT:  I've since looked for DRM-free Dynamite comics and don't know which ones are available in that format.   I mentioned that I could now buy Gail Simone's Red Sonja run, but at the moment it is not available DRM free through Comixology. :(  Keep an eye out, people!

EDIT 2:  I reached out to Dynamite Comics and they replied that they intend to get all of their titles available DRM-free, and that it's an ongoing process.

I received an email earlier today from Comixology saying that DRM-free backup copies of some of my comics are now available to download.  What's funny is I've never bought any comics from Comixology.  But, a while ago, I did sign up for account to claim a free comic and try out their system.  That happened to be an Image Comic so I got the email, otherwise I might not have known about this for a while.  This is great news.  Why?  Let me tell you:
  • Now smaller publishers who don't like or want DRM are able to sell their digital comics their way without the cost of setting up their own storefront.
  • Image's digital store isn't very user friendly, as I have pointed out earlier.  Though I'd rather Image gets all the proceeds instead of Comixology getting a cut, Comixology has a much better store, a cloud reader, and more of Image's back catalog online.  That's right, Comixology has more of Image's comics available digitally---including trades, which you can't buy digitally from Image (though sometimes the trades cost more than the individual issues, and I prefer the singles with the back matter anyway).
  • This is going to put more pressure on other publishers, as well as leading people to comb these named DRM-free publisher's catalogs (as I have been doing, for instance this looks interesting).  Publishers follow the money, and the money will follow DRM free content.  At least, mine will.
  • DRM-free titles selling better has been demonstrated in other media formats too, just observed on the Kindle store: "At almost every price point, we see the thousands of titles without DRM significantly out-earning the thousands of titles with DRM. In fact, at the only two price points that appear to buck the general trend and which show DRM titles outselling non-DRM ones, we found that the reversal was due to 3 outlier DRM titles published by only two authors.
  • It makes me not hate Comixology anymore which is good, because I hate hating things. 
(Does Comixology not have a title review system a la Amazon?  Just a 5-star rating system?  They really need to get on that.)

The publishers I've found listed that are going DRM-free are (some articles say "select titles from" so keep an eye out):

Image Comics, Dynamite Comics, Zenescope Comics, MonkeyBrain Comics, Thrillbent, Top Shelf Production, and IDW Publishing.

Those are the ones I could find in news stories (and this FAQ entry).  If you know of more let me know, I'll try to update this, but really I just want to check out their comics.

You can tell if an issue is available as a DRM-free download by looking for this icon (through the web only, it doesn't show up in the Android app for me):

Honestly I'd prefer they put a big skull-n-crossbones logo on the cover of any book that's not DRM-free, but this will do.  I wish I could search in a pool of only DRM free titles, or browse by DRM-free only.  Yes, I like to own the comics I pay for that much.

Let's see, I can buy Gail Simone's Red Sonja runs now, I can buy Warren Ellis' (and Chris Weston's) Ministry of Space, much of Mike Allred's Madman (and IT Girl, which I don't believe Image has up on their site?).  Oh my Gosh Garth Ennis' (and Amanda Conner's) The Pro. Tobin and Coover's Bandette looks absolutely gorgeous, I'll have to check that out.  Looking at books written by Alan Moore, From Hell is DRM-free but not Lost Girls?  They're both Top Shelf.  Hmm, so we do need to keep our eyes out, it's not necessarily catalog-wide.  I guess no buying from the Comixology Android app for me until it also shows whether a book is available without DRM.

I haven't seen anything about download limits (for instance if we can only download once per comic) or anything like that.  Hopefully Comixology won't allow that to be an option, sometimes backups get lost or corrupted, you know. 

For those worried about DRM-free comics ushering in a new age of piracy, the sky isn't falling, I promise.  If the big publishers are worried about piracy well guess what, every comic they have DRM-protected on Comixology is already freely available on some torrent site.  DRM-locking them didn't stop the piracy, in fact it punished paying customers by giving them an inferior product to what torrenters are downloading for free.  Yes think about that for a moment.  How could DC or Marvel know that I, a (theoretical) Comixology customer, am not a pirate?  Because I'm paying money for the book instead of downloading it from The Pirate Bay.  Maybe don't punish people who want to give you money, you know?

There were rumors of this news floating around a few days ago.  I speculated (to my friend, not on this blog) that Image would be down for DRM-free Comixology (of course), and I guessed Dynamite too, because they've recently participated in big Humble Bundle comic sales.  IDW has too with a Dr Who bundle, so I guess they're not much of a shocker either.  I'm pleasantly surprised by the rest, and I'd love to be surprised still by a full list of DRM-free publisher and titles.  Anybody?

Til then,