Since Y’all Asked . . .

by wjw on September 12, 2008

Ralf asked me in another topic about my policy on DRM. I don’t actually have one, because I don’t produce software, so what I’ve got amounts to mere observations.

I’m for whoever owns the work releasing it with whatever conditions he wants. People can accept or reject it on that basis. If he says, “You can only read it once, and it’s gone,” as William Gibson did for one of his stories, then that’s fine.

In the case of my own works, my print publishers buy electronic rights along with everything else, and if they choose not to use them, or to use them with restrictions, then that’s all right by me. They paid for that privilege. I bought a new car this year with the money they paid me. That’s groovy.

What I object to is adding malware to the package. Protecting your rights is one thing: infecting other folks’ computers with programs that spy on them, or which slows their computer, or can’t be removed even after the game/file/whatever is uninstalled, is not just wrong, but illegal. I own my computer no less than I own my copyrights: I can’t afford to let anyone interfere with either.

(And by the way, putting your work on a Read-Only machine is just dumb. When the machine and/or format becomes obsolete, as inevitably it will be, your work will be as inaccessible as if it were written in Linear A.)

“But,” I hear some say, “information wants to be free.” Maybe your useless information is worth nothing, but mine costs money.

Some writers have done well by releasing all their work on a free, non-DRM basis. I’ve done that with some works, and so far as I can see, it has not made a difference. People have to know who I am before they look for my stuff to find out whether it’s free or not, and most people don’t know me from Adam.

I have yet to hear a single person come up to me and tell me, “I read that story online, and now I’ve gone out and bought everything you’ve ever written.” Or even one thing I’ve ever written.

Giving away stuff for free is fine, but you have to be famous first before that will help your career. Cory Doctorow isn’t famous because he gives his work away: giving his stuff away works for him because he was already famous.

So that’s my policy, such as it is. And, like all my policies, it is subject to change.

If you think otherwise, feel free to change my mind.

Al September 12, 2008 at 8:27 am

Cory was already famous? How was he famous when “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” came out?

He’s famous (well, Internet famous) *now* but I don’t think that many people knew of him when that book came out. He was just some EFF dude then to most people.

Jvstin Tomorrow September 12, 2008 at 10:40 am

My view:

If your software wants reasonable restrictions to make sure I don’t copy it all over the place without your permission, that’s fine.

Installing always-running software on my computer to enforce that is not reasonable. I do not think its reasonable that if I stop playing Spore for a week and go play Civ IV, that my computer’s memory is still bogged down with your program making sure I don’t copy your game that I am not even playing.

Ralf the Dog September 12, 2008 at 2:17 pm

I read Daddy’s World online, and now I’ve gone out and bought everything you’ve ever written.

True if you look at things from a chronologically confused topology.

Chris Meadows September 12, 2008 at 2:41 pm

“Information wants to be free” is one of the most misused slogans ever to hit the Internet. The original quote was:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

It was discussing the tension between how information can have an incredibly high inherent value (for example: stock tips, trade secrets, military intelligence), and yet be so easy to propagate (I type my words into my keyboard, and one quick trip through a series of tubes later, it’s on your screen).

The original meaning of “information wants to be free” is perhaps best exemplified by gossip. People can’t keep the latest juicy bits to themselves; they have to pass it on. The information “wants” to be free(ly propagated).

But most people who say “information wants to be free” these days just mean “I want free (as in beer) information.”

But it’s appropriate that the quote comes up in this context, because nowhere is the tension between information’s value and anthropomorphic “desire” for freedom illustrated so prominently as in the DRM situation. The “information” that is comprised by a novelist’s words is valuable, so publishers try to lock it down—at the cost of the consumer’s “freedom” to read it on unsupported devices.

When you get right down to it, putting DRM on novels is fundamentally pointless. With five minutes on peer-to-peer sites, I can find most any popular novel. Even if I don’t, with five minutes on Google I can find the tools to crack any of the most popular e-book formats—secure MobiPocket, eReader, or MS Reader (.LIT).

And even if the book isn’t available in those formats, it only takes one person with a bandsaw and a sheet-feeding scanner to make it so. J.K. Rowling was adamant about not making the Harry Potter books available electronically for fear of “piracy”—which didn’t prevent complete electronic copies of the books from circulating electronically within hours of their release.

Yet, it seems most people would prefer to be honest. Radiohead did pretty well by putting one of their albums up on a “pay whatever it’s worth to you” model. British band Marillion is trying the same thing.

When Baen gave away the first book of its Honor Harrington series for free, print sales of the entire series picked up. Other authors who put works in Baen’s Free Library reported similar upticks in their work, and there have been a number of posts from Baen (and more recently, Tor) readers who say exactly that: “I liked this free e-book so much that I had to go read more by the author.” This is somewhat anecdotal evidence, but at least the trend is there.

I do agree the decision about whether to give one’s stuff away should be up to the author (or other rights-holder). I can’t condone “piracy.” If an author (or whoever holds the rights) wants to sell his book rather than give it away free, that’s his right.

But I also can’t condone restrictive DRM. It’s pointless because it treats the customer like a potential criminal, while the real criminals are easily able to break it. In the end, it doesn’t do anything except add to the cost of producing the book and frustrate the customer.

JRS September 12, 2008 at 6:36 pm

Since I am my publisher’s ebook editor, I can also say that DRM and proprietary formats make development of ebooks a pain in the butt. Instead of producing one or two formats, you wind up producing dozens, and heaven help you if you’re putting ISBNs on each one. For a small press, that kind of cost is prohibitive.

Worse, the DRM locks a given version of the book into one and only one mechanism for sale. In the case of Amazon Kindle, if you want a book that is DRMed at all, you have to sell it through Amazon, on their terms.

I agree with Chris Meadows’ comment that “…most people would prefer to be honest.” The experience of the record companies with iTunes vs Napster would seem to bear this out. I would go further and suggest that the people who would pirate your work for free are people who couldn’t or wouldn’t have bought your work if they’d had to. I think most readers understand that if the author doesn’t get paid somewhere in the equation, there won’t be more books forthcoming.

Why, then, am I dealing with DRMed ebooks? That’s what my publisher wants, and I want my books to be available on my freaking Kindle. 🙂


dubjay September 12, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Boing Boing, which went on the web in 1995, already had hundreds of thousands of hits per day when “Down and Out” appeared.

Let’s say that this kind of PR muscle adds considerably to the exposure of a person’s work.

Good to know that even the people who =do= DRM hate DRM. That’s an aspect to the situation that hadn’t occurred to me— though now that I think about it, the notion that the frontline warriors think that their superiors are clueless is not exactly new to our time.

Chris Meadows September 12, 2008 at 9:04 pm

Another thing—as I was going back over the article, it appears you have conflated the two forms of freedom yourself. You talk about releasing the book for free, without DRM, but the examples you give all relate to “free” in the monetary sense.

It is perfectly possible, and acceptable, to sell your work but still not put DRM on it. This is what Baen does, and hopefully what Tor will do before long.

Ralf the Dog September 12, 2008 at 10:46 pm

The key to making money by giving stuff away is a marketing genius to help you build the hype. If you are not doing something so bizarrely different that the press will line up for interviews, you are just throwing your work away.

Here is an idea for you. Don’t write the novel by yourself, collaborate with your readers. Write three versions of about three paragraphs. Call them A, B, and C. Then let your readers vote on the one they like best. Continue from the version the readers picked.

You would need to set up a message board and possibly a chat server where readers (Editors or whatever you choose to call them) can give feedback. The key is to get as much interaction as you can.

More interaction leads to more banner views and more clicks and more people becoming addicted to your stories.

I know this would be allot more work than a regular book, however the gimmick aspect could draw in lots of press and lots of people who would never read one of your books.

If things go badly, you can end the story any time you want.

Geoffrey September 13, 2008 at 1:31 am

I discovered your writing through one of Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best SF anthologies. However, there are authors whose books I buy because of a free electronic edition. I’ve bought over half a dozen of Eric Flint’s military alternate histories after reading the beginning of the first one on my laptop during a long flight delay in New York City a few years back.

As for DRM, I’m not religiously opposed to it, and have used DRM-protected media when the restrictions aren’t onerous (such as the ones on iTunes). That said, given a choice between DRM and DRM-free, I’m always going to go with DRM-free even if it’s a little more expensive. I think DRM’s ultimately self-defeating: you inconvenience law-abiding users and fair use, while doing little or nothing to stop piracy.

Oren September 19, 2008 at 7:57 pm

A book printed as “Dead Tree” needfully has rules divergent from an electronic file. Some of those rules are in the realm of physical law. Others are of human legal or ethical construction. As in – you do not expect to walk out of a bookseller holding a “Dead Tree” copy of Hardwired.

Nor should you reasonably expect to download a copy from a warez channel or usenet and NOT be ethically/morally just as GUILTY of theft! Absent of course the cases where Cory et all DESIRE such “viral” spread. Or any other author emulating the concept of free to copy. As that is THEIR right.

Copying whether by scanning a dead tree book or file posting raises the spurious arguments of who gets hurt?
In concrete money terms? Yeah-you can argue that till the heat death of all universes you’ve not affected anyone. Or have you? Let me take a moment to explain.

An author or creator should have the RIGHT to declare how or not to distribute copies of their work! It was at one time called “Moral Copyright” Which of course encompasses the right to declare “Copyleft” etc. But the CREATOR of a work is the arbiter of such issues. Absent perhaps “work for hire” or transfer of rights to a publisher cases being exceptions.

The devil inhabits details.

Formerly we had remaindered books returned or discounted. Now we have the abomination of destruction called “Cover Stripping” mandated moreso by taxation than shipping costs. That being another time sink to argue over details of.

Speaking for myself alone?

I’d want a DRM free world. Where I’d hope simple honor precluded certain acts. My grandfather often stated that if you want in one hand and hope in the other you will have two very empty hands.

Failing that? A world which gets closer to one where DRM is not an issue.

Al September 19, 2008 at 8:00 pm

If you DRM a book, I won’t buy it. Period. There are a lot of people that feel this way. I want to be able to read purchased books, regardless of format, on any operating system and in ten years. DRM removes this right.

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