The Dangers of DRM: just give it up already

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

E-reader (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love reading books. I love my e-reader more than I ever expected to. I want to support book shops and authors and libraries. I want to give them my money.

So why do e-readers make it so hard?

There are so many things you can do with an e-reader that Amazon etc… didn’t envisage when they first came up with the device. We have the pleasing oddities like the humble eBook bundle, practical extensions that import articles and Google docs from browser to e-reader and new avenues for acquiring eBooks such as Project Gutenberg. However the theoretically simple act of buying an eBook from a high street shop website is more complicated than balancing the government’s budget. Not only is the download process often strangely convoluted and poorly explained but having downloaded and paid for the book there is a high chance it will not be compatible with your e-reader of choice.

Yes, it is that worst of all eBook afflictions: DRM.

There are plenty of, easily available ways to circumvent DRM but the only legal option is to read the eBook on a laptop or buy the compatible e-reader, neither of which is exactly a viable option. While the theoretical logic of DRM is obvious, even a brief investigation of the practicalities shows up serious flaws. Most obviously, nothing drives people to piracy like having to jump through hoops for something they have already paid for. EBooks ought to be available to read on whatever device happens to be available, no matter where it came from. If an e-reader breaks or dies all the books on it should transfer to the next device without any fuss. The fact that this is not the case borders on the ridiculous especially when it is so easy to pay nothing for an eBook without DRM. The reality is that DRM makes eBooks inferior to both physical books and pirated eBooks. In order to abide by the law customers have to make a conscious choice to spend money on a worse product than the illegal version. Clearly this is not a sustainable model.

English: Librarians against DRM

Librarians against DRM (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other irritation that people have started to run up against more and more is the fact that eBooks cannot be lent to friends. Marketing studies have shown time and again that word of mouth and sharing books is the most effective way to boost book sales yet lending remains anathema to eBooks. Amazon has started to make steps in this direction, though only for their US customers but most publishers in this country are still struggling with lending libraries. EBooks have been a significant part of our culture for enough years now that the negotiations on this point are looking increasingly like petulant floundering.

Though I was not a fan of Pirate Cinema, Cory Doctrow’s article for the Guardian last year is an incredibly thorough look at the draw backs, for both customers and retailers, of continuing to use DRM. Some retailers are finally starting to wake up to the harm DRM is causing though it lingers in the majority of eBook sales. Last year Tor started selling their eBooks without DRM and others must surely begin to follow. Hopefully as more independent booksellers start to embrace e-readers they will have learned the lessons from the big chains and will steer well clear of DRM.

Ultimately, books are too important to be chained up by DRM and kept behind bars. Reading should be a joy. Reading should set you free.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like DRM?

Review: Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

English: Cory Doctorow in his office

English: Cory Doctorow in his office (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have read prose by Cory Doctorow before. I find his writing for the guardian and BoingBoing to be, by enlarge, compelling, persuasive and thought provoking. I would recommend his articles whole heartedly even to those likely to disagree with him so when I got Pirate Cinema in the humble ebook bundle I was excited to finally try his fiction.

Unfortunately Pirate Cinema did not live up to my expectations.

The plot of Pirate Cinema, such as it is, follows Trent, or Cecil B DeVil as he will come to be known, as he runs away from home after his internet is cut off for illegal downloading and he finds himself homeless in London.

That seemed to have potential but here is where the problems begin. Everything from here on out is sanitised to the point that being homeless in London becomes a utopian dream world. There are no sexual predators, limited mental illness or violence and even the drug dealers are friendly. Trent/Cecil leads a charmed life that makes even the most potentially interesting exploits boring.

In London, Trent meets a man who teaches him the ways of squatting, dumpster diving and begging. His luck briefly runs out when the police bang on his door but before he’s had time to do more than wallow he meets cool friends who love his video remixes of fictional star Scott Colford. Then he gets a cool, clever girlfriend called 26, and he takes an interest in politics – mostly to get into her pants. Despite his apparently sophmoric understanding of the issues, the sheer stupendousness of his remixed videos propels him, above more qualified characters, including 26, to the position of leader of a campaign to repeal the “Theft of Intellectual Property” act. This act has given the government powers to lock up illegal downloaders all of whom are teenagers and none of whom are in the least bit nefarious. He is reunited with his incredibly intelligent sister who now looks up to him, is reconciled with his parents who finally understand the importance of what he’s doing and becomes friends with the granddaughter of Scott Colford. He is briefly arrested and put on trial but even this is of only limited inconvenience. In the end he even manages to get TIP overthrown with the power of his amazing Scott Colford remix and doesn’t seem too upset when his girlfriend announces her intention to move to Edinburgh.

Through out the book Trent/Cecil is relentlessly two dimensional and lacking in depth. Even the long copyright speeches he is forced to make sound contrived. Where ever he goes and whatever he does everyone he meets loves, admires and respects him but at no point could I understand why. The boy is not very bright, he’s self-centered, constantly whiny, obnoxiously hipster and has everything ridiculously easy. I now suspect that the reason he was so well loved is simple: he is the author-avatar. Though he spent a lot of the book moping or in some kind of turmoil, the challenges he faced were overcome far too easily and usually with no sacrifice or effort on his part. He can’t even think or feel for himself and relies constantly on characters around him that fed him their knowledge, convictions, passions, tolerance etc… without getting any recognition for their efforts. He doesn’t even have to spend time in jail when his whole movement is arrested.

The problem with Pirate Cinema is that it the whole thing is merely a flimsy front for a polemic. The plot is incidental and merely carries the semi-anarchist, anti-copyright, anti-corporate diatribe that addresses none of the subtleties or potential counter arguments.  From his other writing I guess Cory Doctorow to be a man of deep conviction who is nevertheless intelligent enough to grasp the intricacies of the copyright debate so why is it that none of it shows up in his book? Instead we have endless pages of sainted artists who only want to violate copyright to create and make no money because they are living the utopian dream vs the evil corporate copyright holders who want to hold the country to ransom for a fortune. It is unforgivably naive even in a book aimed at Young Adults. When the politics are portrayed as so black and white it’s no wonder perhaps that both plot and characters are so two dimensional that they function as little more than threadbare mouth pieces for Doctorow’s proselytizing.

The result is simplistic, preachy, shallow and painfully naive without even enough character or plot to rescue it.

Finishing this little book was such wretchedly hard work. I know I get no extra credit for making it to the end. No one will reward me for the effort. Life is too short for terrible books you may cry and you’d be right but my deep and almost instant dislike compelled me to keep reading. I felt like I had to give it a chance but I don’t think I have ever had to try so hard to finish a book in my life (excepting one or two particularly uninspired history text books). Being able to start my reread of A Dance with Dragons on the tube this morning was a blessed relief.

Ebooks, ebooks everywhere

As a soon-to-be unemployed again person, finding economic ways to buy books for my kindle is a priority at the moment and I have found a fabulous way to do this. Today, I paid $15 (approx £10) for 8 DRM free science fiction, fantasy and graphic novel ebooks. Not only could I choose my price – I could have paid less, one day I hope to be able to pay a lot more – I could also choose how the money was distributed between the authors, the site and various charities being supported. The default settings seemed reasonable to me so the bulk of my $15 went to the authors, some to charity and some to Humblebundle, the people responsible for putting this whole venture together. Though there are also options to have all the money go to authors or to charity.

It turns out humblebundle have been doing this sort of thing for a while now, but with games which, despite my geeky ways, I’ve never really got the hang of. The closest I came to being any sort of gamer was my short lived reign as queen of crash bandicoot when I was 9 and an abiding love of the sims but that is a story for another day. On further investigation however I admit I fell in love a bit. The commitment to DRM free and to giving money to charities is the kind of thing that gives me warm fuzzies. Especially when a run down of their charities includes geek/tech/gamer friendly charities like Child’s Play and Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as more traditional charities like Red Cross and the international Charity:Water.

Given that I’m not a gamer I stumbled across humblebundle by happy accident when it was mentioned on two blogs belonging to Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi who both have books in the bundle. I have at some point or another read and loved almost everything Neil Gaiman has to offer so I was surprised to find that the graphic novel on offer: Signal to Noise was not one I’d read before. John Scalzi on the other hand is someone whose blog I read on a regular basis since someone linked me to his post Things I Don’t Have to Think About Today but I have never actually read any of this books despite Old Man’s War and Redshirts having come out since then. Both these books are only included if you pay more than the average contribution for the bundle.

Of all of the books on offer II had only read one: Lauren Beukes’s contribution Zoo City which I read when it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clark award. Three authors were people I’d been meaning to try but never quite managed: Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctrow and Mercedes Lackey and the final contributor, Kelly Link, I had never heard of but I’m excited to discover her work.

When I brought mine the average price of the bundle was $12.43, 37816 bundles had been brought and there are 12 days to go if you want them. Support good causes and get new books – what more could you want?