Imposing technological solutions for Digital Rights Management (DRM) is, in theory, a viable way to stop the piracy of online content. In theory. In practice DRM presents a host of implementation problems and customer service headaches because legitimate content owners are punished or disadvantaged alongside thieves.
Because of the gap between current theory and practice, proponents and opponents of DRM attempt to dominate the DRM debate with apocalyptic rhetoric, political gamesmanship, and the kind of righteous indignation that is both an intellectual guilt trip and calculated lie at the same time. Neither side is really interested in what is practical or effective, or even in learning how pirated content is actually consumed by the end user.
The reason they are not interested is because they cannot sell the products they want to sell in a calm atmosphere. It takes fear of nuclear annihilation to sell both bomb shelters and bombs, so both sides in the DRM debate stoke the rhetorical fires and present their hard-line solutions as the truth, the light and the only way. All of which I’ve talked about here, here and here.
Still, it seems to me that there is one DRM question worth asking. Here’s how I referenced the issue in one of those previous posts:
Elsewhere in the clip, Mr. Doctorow makes a good point when he says that books will be copied and scanned regardless of the DRM that publishers employ. I agree. But that’s not necessarily saying something important. Scanned versions of books are almost inevitably going to be less clear than licensed e-books or even licensed digital copies. Yet even assuming someone cracks a DRM-protected book and makes it available for free, the book business has a kind of built-in protection against wanton piracy simply by nature of its content.
Music comes in small files. Movies are dumb — you just stare at them. Books, however, are big, and require active engagement over a long period of time in order to be consumed.
Maybe someone somewhere is downloading two hundred cracked e-books at a whack, then reading the first sentence of each in order to find a great read, but I think it’s unlikely. In fact, it’s unlikely that most pirated books are ever completely read, precisely because a book is relatively hard to digest. This means the ratio of thefts by end-users who intend to enjoy the content they steal to thefts by pirates who intend to profit from the content they steal may be lower in the book publishing industry than in any other medium. Which means the book publishing industry has more to gain by going after traffickers and less to gain by going after end-users than any other industry.
Before efforts are made to strengthen legal protections and prohibitions, or great sums are shoveled at the development of technological DRM solutions, it seems to me that each content industry would profit greatly by first asking the following question:
What are consumers actually doing with the content they pirate?
Not only do I think this question is important for each content industry, I think it gives insight into how the various content industries differ with regard to the net effects of piracy. For example, because songs are usually short — say, three minutes on average — and because music can be enjoyed passively while doing something else, it’s probably fair for the music industry to assume that pirated songs are consumed by the pirating public. In fact, it’s hard to image that a consumer would take the time to download a song that they wouldn’t at least listen to once.
But is that necessarily true of all content industries and products? I would argue that it is not, and that the publishing industry in particular is making a mistake in presuming (or being led to conclude) that illegally downloaded books are either fully or substantively consumed by the thieving public. Assuming we’re not talking about books-on-tape — which are essentially massive audio files — pirated publishing content simply cannot be digested in a distracted manner. You cannot read a book as you would listen to a pirated MP3 file or even watch a pirated DVD: the workload while reading is exponentially more involved, and there is no multitasking you can effectively do while reading for comprehension or enjoyment.
Too, if we’re talking about pirated fiction, there’s the additional requirement of creating and sustaining suspension of disbelief for the reader, and the open question of whether reading from a screen provides the same emotional experience as reading from a printed page. In fact, even as the market floods with e-readers from all quarters, everyone seems to agree that all of them — including the Kindle and the new iPad — are substandard reading experiences. (Currently, as both a test and an interest, I am reading Paul Carr’s freely-distributed .pdf of his book, Bringing Nothing To The Party, and I’m finding it almost unbearable.)
Given all these obstacles, are we really to conclude that downloaded books are consumed and experienced at the same rate as downloaded music? Books have miserable technology supporting them, while music is delivered with cutting-edge simplicity (if not cutting-edge fidelity). Books require dedicated concentration, while music is often so much background noise. Books demand language skills, reasoning skills, emotional sensitivity and a base level of cultural awareness, while music requires only functioning ears.
Several weeks ago, while reading some of the twits from the recent DigitalBookWorld (DBW) conference, I became convinced that this aspect of the DRM question deserves a closer look by the publishing industry. I tried to twit the question to people inside the DBW conference, but it was either ignored or lost in the storm. Fortuitously, however, I ran across the following twit the next day:
@ljndawson Stockfield: Even when we make the entire book available for free, people only view about 12 pages of it. #DBW
Imagine that you are publisher. You know that 10,000 copies of your latest bestseller have been downloaded illegally, but you also know that 95% of those pirated copies will never be read. Suddenly your effective losses shrink from 10,000 stolen copies to 500. Are you going to shovel the same amount of time and money at technological DRM solutions if your exposure is actually 5% of total pirated downloads? I think not.
As a practical matter, and repeating what I said in an earlier post, what’s stolen when content is pirated is an experience — whether that experience be emotional, visceral or rational. The digital file format that any e-content comes in is simply the delivery mechanism: is it is not the content itself.* If consumers are downloading the delivery mechanism — the file that contains the content — but they are not actually digesting the content, there is, as a practical matter, no negative effect on the creator of the content. From the point of view of protecting content, a stolen digital file that is never looked at is the same as a file that does not exist.
Again, imagine you write a book that ten thousand people download illegally, but no one ever reads past page five. Was something stolen from you? Legally, yes, but as a practical matter I would argue that there would be no advantage in trying to prevent these crimes from taking place. By the same token, if the publishing industry is worried about protecting its content, it needs to make a distinction between the ease of acquiring unauthorized electronic files and the difficulty of digesting the contents of those files.
Note, too, that the objective here is not zero losses, but acceptable/recoverable losses. Physical objects are also stolen, and anyone who owns a bookstore must dedicate a certain amount of time and energy to defeating in-store theft. Likewise, publishers are concerned when a crate of books goes missing, and put procedures in place to prevent such losses. Both the bookstore owner and the publisher know they can never cut their property losses to zero, but they do what they can to deter wholesale pillaging, then pass the cost of the remaining losses along to the consumer. The same approach — judging the cost of what is lost, and balancing the cost of defeating that loss with the cost of charging the consumer for other people’s thievery — should also be used in responding to the pirating of digital content, but currently that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Everyone agrees that it’s impossible to convert pirated copies to lost sales in any industry because the majority of people who pirate content would not necessarily buy that content if prevented from acquiring it free. I agree with that assumption. What both sides in the DRM debate also assume is that the total number of downloads equals the total number of consumer experiences of that content, and I particularly think that’s a faulty assumption for the publishing industry to make.
I also think that looking at the number of people who actually use downloaded content might provide a metric by which the number of lost sales could be determined, or at least more closely approximated. In effect, the more likely a person is to dedicate themselves to consuming an entire pirated book, the more likely they might be to buy that book if otherwise prevented from acquiring it for free. (Their determination to overcome the inherent obstacles of the content implies interest/demand.)
Not all books types are the same, of course. Pirated textbooks might be more prone to full use because students are required to complete coursework in return for a passing grade — which, at the college level, they (or someone else) are paying for. Similarly, some reference works might be said to be consumed even if only a small part of the content is digested. How-to books comes to mind, where only one section of a book might be useful to any given consumer because it meets that consumer’s specific needs. Fiction, on the other hand, usually needs to be fully read in order to be understood, and many nonfiction works (biographies) are only comprehensible when fully digested.
So what should the publishing industry do? Well, here’s what I would try if I ran a publishing house:
- Gather data on the use of pirated texts. What are end users doing with the content they steal? The goal here is to come up with percentages for various book types. E.g., 12% of stolen fiction is read to completion; 82% of stolen how-to books are consumed by end-users in a way that answers their questions about the subject matter.)
- Define losses only as content that is consumed by end-users. Equate a percentage of those losses to lost sales. E.g., if 19% of a given pirated book type is deemed consumed by the pirating public, a working assumption might be that 20% of that number (slightly less than 4% of the total) might have bought those books if the contents were not available free. Vary the estimate to see what the range of exposure is to those losses.
- Use these projected sales losses to quantify the need for DRM relative to physical losses which are already known. Calculate the cost not of eliminating either type of loss, but of bringing digital losses in line with physical losses. What is the best plan for doing so?
- Calculate the cost and ROI of preventing or prosecuting end-user theft vs. the cost and ROI of preventing or prosecuting third-party trafficking. Invest in the most cost-effective solutions.
At the end of the day, if pirated publishing content is not generally being consumed by the pirating public, it means that comprehensive DRM solutions for the problem are of minimal utility. If people aren’t using the products they download then you don’t need robust protection from consumer theft. Instead, you can afford to target the people who host, sell, or otherwise attempt to financially profit from trafficking in your stolen content.
* A footnote here to clarify the critical difference between digital content and physical content. If you steal a book or a CD you have stolen both the content and the costs associated with making that physical object. When you steal digital content there is no object to steal because it effectively costs nothing to create a digital copy of an existing file. People who say that content theft is it not theft tend to ascribe value only to the object: to the physical book. Because digital files are not objects they leap to the conclusion that nothing is stolen when a digital file is copied, but this is demonstrably false.
Stealing or revealing state secrets is punishable not because the state wants to discourage the theft of electronic files, but because the state wants to protect the contents of electronic files. For example, having information about troop movements is valuable apart from any electronic medium that might contain that information — or even if that information is never written down or recorded anywhere and giving or selling that information to the wrong person could be a crime. (All information has a market value, even if that value is most often zero.) For the record: you can steal objects, you can steal information, and you can steal objects that contain information, but it’s all still stealing.
— Mark Barrett
luke t. begeron says
I’m definitely curious to see the results about these things for all industries, not just books. It seems to me that music, like you say, is enjoyed in addition to other things, but also that music piracy became much more widespread once there was a better medium for enjoying that music while doing other things.
When MP3 piracy came out, people also seemed like they were spending more time on their computers – IM was bigger then, because it wasn’t on phones, just PCs, so sitting for hours while chatting with friends and listening to pirated MP3s on the computer was more feasible. Once MP3 players, a dedicated device for enjoying music, came out, piracy was more of an issue, since the pirated MP3 experience and the iTunes bought MP3 experience was the same, or at least very similar.
It seems like as e-readers and other dedicated reading devices get better, pirates will be better able to emulate the same experience that can be had via purchasing, since the device will be the place to consume content, whether legitimately purchased or not. It seems as though the widespread adoption of the digital medium will increase piracy, but there is something to your approach that seems important:
I think that content tends to be valued differently depending on the source, and that might partly account for pirates’ limited use of that content. If I buy a book, I tend to read the whole thing even if I have to slog through it, because I paid money for it, so I’m going to get my money’s worth. If I get a book from the library and it turns out to be awful after 20 pages, I’m happy to return it without reading the rest. A book has to be better for me to read it if I got it for free from the library. I imagine the same thing is the case with pirated copies, not just for books, but music, games, movies, etc.
Right now, the experience of reading on a screen isn’t that great, but it will get better once there are more dedicated devices for the task. Once that’s normalized, I think your approach will be even more necessary, since the exchange of money (and corresponding legality) will be the only real differentiator between a digital pirated copy of a book and a legitimate digital one.
I don’t disagree with your analysis leading up to this point, but I think the advent of the MP3 player, and in particular the iPod and iTunes one-two punch, also did what was necessary to bring the cost (both economic and procedural) of acquiring content into line with consumer expectations. Most people just don’t have a gripe with a buck for a song, and particular not the generation(s) that were forced to buy whole CD’s to get one decent track. (If you haven’t read Steven Knopper’s book, you really should.)
My own view is that iTunes (and the iPod) work primarily because it’s one-stop shopping. Just as Amazon is the go-to site for books, Apple’s iTunes is the go-to site for must music. Amazon clearly wants to be the go-to site for e-books as well, but only time will tell if they can pull that off.
I agree, and was trying to convey that same idea in the original post I quote from. Anyone who’s pulling down tons of pirated publishing content almost by definition places no value on that content, and is therefore unlikely to invest time or money in digesting it. That’s one of the reasons that I think you can make a guestimated leap from the number of people actually using pirated publishing content to the number of lost sales: you gain some insight into what people care about when you ask them if they actually read the book they stole.
Levi Montgomery says
I’ve dithered a bit about whether or not this is the place to raise this question, but since your post begins with the statement that “legitimate content owners are punished or disadvantaged” by DRM, I’m going to ask this, although it is almost another question entirely.
What, exactly, are these punishments and disadvantages that ebook purchasers are facing?
Yes, I know, a DRM’d book cannot be copied to another machine. It cannot be read on every device you own. You can’t make backup copies. But if you go to the bookstore and buy a book, none of these things are possible with that single, paper copy, either, and yet “everyone seems to agree that [ereaders] are substandard reading experiences.” So it is inherently inferior (given the current state of the art) in terms of the reading experience itself, and yet not having the ability to do things that are unheard of in the print world is a punishment? I’m not sure I can buy that.
Let’s invent a new device, just for fun. It’s got an e-ink screen, full-color and touch-sensitive. The resolution and clarity are unparalleled. Everybody agrees it’s like reading ink on paper. It’s fifty bucks at a drug store near you, and we’re making everything we can legally get our hands on available for it. Oh, but the books come to you as SDHC cards.
If you have the book in your pocket (or in the handy-dandy pocket of the free leather case), then you can read it. You can sell it. You can loan it out. In short, you can do all of the same things you can do with any print book you now own, except it’s the size of a postage stamp and no thicker than an old man’s thumbnail. Oh, and Amazon can’t come to your house in the dark of night and take it back.
Is this not a huge step forward over print books? Isn’t the fact that you can carry a few hundred books in your pocket an advantage, not a disadvantage? Isn’t it a blessing, and not a punishment, not to have to hold the pages open? Isn’t it great to be able to read one-handed, snuggled down into a warm bed on a cold winter night, and never have the book slide closed because you let your guard down?
Ebooks as they exist are significantly better than print books, better even than books on SD cards, and yet DRM is being vilified because DRM’s books cannot be used in ways that print books or books on SD cards cannot. I agree, it would be great if new technologies brought us new ways to interact with art, but if all the new technology brings us is a better way to do what we’ve always done, I can hardly agree that the lack of new utility is a “punishment ” or a “disadvantage.”
I think the majority of disadvantages I was alluding to would stem from the sticky issue of mating theory to practice. Whatever DRM system you come up with, it’s another technical layer on top of multiple technical layers that all need to work flawlessly. As almost any interaction with technology will show (in frighteningly short order) things often do not go as planned.
So…you implement a DRM solution, and all of a sudden X percent of your legit users are having their machines locked, or scrubbed, or their credit card numbers are being charged fees for abuses that people didn’t commit. Or maybe it all works, but there are two extra steps involved in each purchase…or maybe that’s only an one-time thing, but if you blow it you have to make three calls to get it straightened out. (That would be the unintended punishment.)
In theory, as you point out, if DRM were transparent and flawless there would be no disadvantage or punishment.
As to functionality — including the ability to loan out multiple copies, etc., I don’t really have a wish list. If everybody wants to have a one-copy-only policy it’s fine with me. I think iTunes does a decent job of letting you have multiple copies on (I think) five machines, if only because you might want your music in five places. Maybe books can get around this with a central library feature where you can loan yourself (or someone else) the same paid-for copy from one server location.
I understand the SDHC example, but it almost seems like an unnecessary step from the point of view of the technology. Wireless obviates the need, as does broadband. The parallel with books holds better with a card, but I don’t know if I want to sort through a drawer full of cards to find my favorite book….
I don’t agree that e-books are better than print books. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff online, and I don’t mind going to the web for short pieces, but longer works on almost any kind of screen simply break me down over time. Reflected light of moderate intensity off a paper page has a quality that is not wearying. Everything else that I’ve ever seen does not (yet) have this quality.
To me it’s the only thing that matters. Make the reading experience transparent to my sensory apparatus and you can dictate functionality all you want. (Meaning you the developer, not you, Levi.) Absent that transparency, I’ll still be reading most of my novels in paper form — even if I have to print them out to do so.
Levi Montgomery says
Just for the record, I’m not advocating for a model where SD cards are the norm for books, merely pointing out that in such a world, most of the advantages of ebooks would still hold, and yet the limitations of DRM’d ebooks (or the “Physical Rights Management” of print) would still be in place as well.
I have no doubt at all that within a very short time, ebooks will become the de facto standard, but I do have a short list of deep concerns:
— What will the ability of the author/editor/designer be to exert control over such features as the physical layout of the book, the pagination, etc? If I write a novel that relies on typeface to tell you things (I did — Jillian’s Gold), then I assure you that until I can have that level of control over the presentation, that particular novel is never going to be available as an ebook. PDF, sure. I love PDF.
— What will we do about that pesky question of ownership? I really like the model where the book exists “in the clouds” somewhere, and all you buy is the right to read it across a network on a device of your choice, but who owns it? What prevents the loss of the right you’ve paid for?
— What keeps loans from being duplications? I like that you can loan my book to Aunt Sue (she’s going to love it), but the fact that you can give it to her, her hubbie, your oldest kid, the couple next door (both of them), and all your coworkers, all at the same time, while keeping your own copy? Not so much. Best dealt with via simple morality/ethics education, iffen you ask me.
The answers to most of these questions are future answers. What we’re concerned with now are transitions from one mode/code of behavior to something new, and we (rightly) would like to exert some control on how that transitional process plays out.
I tend to think, however, that there really isn’t much new under the sun, and that human behavior won’t change drastically no matter how much tech you make available. X% of the theft happening right now is simply novelty theft, and particularly the part driven by young people. Stealing is also political oppositions/invalidation, so it feels cool in a suburban-hip-geek kind of way — as opposed to the urban-gun-in-your-face way. Over time, though, the workload of even being a good thief will pale in comparison with the ease of finding whatever you want whenever you want for a price that’s relatively painless, and people will just go back to buying things.
Some digital books will be duplicated on loan, but for the most part they won’t be. Why? Because it’s easier not to. “Oh, god, I’m supposed to send Greg that stupid copy of that book I’m reading…. Why can’t he just get his own damn copy? What the hell am I, a library???”
Software tools like SourceSafe have long made it a practice to control the release of files so that no two people are ever working on the same file at the same time. A library-like control for read-only texts isn’t even a difficult solution, and packaged properly (meaning marketing-wise) it could replicate the experience of checking out a book at a library.
Levi Montgomery says
Although, there is another side to this: http://www.michaelastackpole.com/?p=1035
Mr Stackpole seems to be talking mostly about repurchases by the same reader, but his argument could be applied to the purchases that were NOT made by the people who received free copies from a purchaser.