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,


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