DRM = Lost Sales

Today I had my first big hairy encounter with why Digital Rights Management software is the worst idea that has ever come out of the tech sector.

It’s a snow day here in DC, well, more like a slushy rain, and the fear of driving has closed everything down.  So, I’ve got the day off.  This leads me to start scrolling through Netflix looking for something good.  But Netflix has next  to nothing good right now, because none of the major film companies want to play with them.  So, I figured I’d look through iTunes and see what I could find in their movie selections.  I decided it was finally time for me to see Looper.  And streaming at $4.99 was reasonable.  So, I pay my money, and start the download to buffer and I get the sign that it’s ready.

Now this is where I tell you that I have my MacBook connected to my television.  I use it as a media console and I sometimes move windows over to the television and blow up things like YouTube videos or Netflix movies or anything else that would just generally look better on the bigger screen.  I’ve got the screen split between my laptop’s built in monitor and the television.

So, I move my iTunes window over to the television to play that movie for me and my partner and my roommate so we can all watch it together.  And then it stops playing.  It would hiccup for a second and then black screen. Then I got this popup window.


The text of it reads “The selected movie won’t play on one of your selected displays. This movie can only be played on HDCP (High Bandwidth Digital Content Protection).  Try moving the iTunes window to a different display. Make sure the entire window is in the supported display.”

And it’s true.  When I would move the movie over to my desktop it would play, but even if it would be just a hairs breadth in the television display it would seize up.

This was not something that I knew before I paid my money, and had I known in advance that this was going to happen I wouldn’t have bought it at all.  The purpose of renting that movie was to have a nice little snow day in with my partner and to pass the time.  So, I reported this to iTunes and demanded my money back.

And then I went to Amazon.  And at least Amazon is up front about it.  They give you a giant list of all the compatible televisions on which you are allowed to watch their movie.

But seriously, I have to have a specific kind of television to watch a goddamn movie?

This is why piracy is rampant.  Artificial barriers to access result in people not getting the product they want the way that they want it.  Watching a movie on a television should be a no-brainer.  You stream your movie and you watch it on a television in your home.  You shouldn’t have to have a special television that is DRM compliant just to be “allowed” to watch a movie.  It’s completely stupid.

So, I didn’t get the movie on iTunes or Amazon.  I was perfectly willing to pay for it.  But I want to watch that movie on my television.  If I can’t do that, I’ll just keep my money.

To learn more about this kind of stupidity check out http://www.defectivebydesign.org/


Romance Novels and DRM

There is a kickass article in this month’s issue of Fast Company on Harlequin eBook impresario Angela James.  There are two things in this article that are awesome (apart from the fact that eBook romance is awesome anyway).  The first was the quote from Harlequin’s Executive Vice-President for digital books Brent Lewis.

It’s not surprising that Harlequin would get there first. After all, the company pioneered mail-order as well as drugstore and supermarket book distribution. “Wherever women are, however women want to read,” is how Brent Lewis, executive vice president for digital, puts it. Online and direct-to-consumer sales (to readers on Harlequin’s website) weren’t major jumps.

Emphasis mine.  This motto broadly applied to all readers is something that Libraries are just finally starting to understand.  With the Contra-Costa County Library and their book vending machines, libraries putting QR codes in the wild on city buses, and just generally making eBook downloads available via mobile apps and eReaders with Wi-Fi or 3-4G connections is just starting to get there.  This also speaks to the value of embedded librarians out in the world outside of the reference desk environment, connecting with users via social media and active chat clients and, being able to provide library service however it is our public needs it.

The second critical point here is regarding the sale of eBooks with DRM and without.

Carina’s biggest departure from other major publishers — including its owner — is that its books are sold without digital rights management, the technology embedded in many electronic media to thwart pirates. Spooked by what happened to the music industry, most book publishers have embraced this set of access controls, but readers chafe at it. On AllRomance.com, DRM titles comprise half of inventory but only 4% of sales in 2010, says chief operating officer Lori James. (All books purchased on the Nook have DRM, no matter the publisher’s policy.)

“Our theory is that it doesn’t prevent piracy because any pirate can strip DRM in about 30 seconds,” says James. “DRM instead inhibits casual sharing, an important part of the reading process — and the purchasing process.”


Look at that.  Sales are showing, hands down that people are choosing non-DRM protected titles the vast majority of the time.  96% of sales.  How can you argue with numbers like that?  Seriously.  They also clearly understand how women read and share romance novels.  I can tell you from the days when I watched my mother, aunts and friends in their romance novel reading heydays, that they would get grocery bag loads full of books, swap them back and forth among each other and tell each other which ones were good and which ones were bad, which had steamy scenes and which were sweet.  It is a vigorously social reader behavior that DRM restricted eBooks would change, for the worse.  Also, these women who read Romance novels read them in volume, and the price point and publishing rate needs to support that.  And this woman is making it happen.  Kudos to you Angela James for understanding how romance novel readers read and share, and pushing a business model that supports that rather than hinders it.  Awesome.

The Library’s Future

Note: This was originally published on my LiveJournal and in the blitz of cross posting content over to WordPress I neglected to bring this over.  So I have backdated it to precede the post entitled TEDxLibrariansTO, because the content from this article is referenced in there. –ESR

The Library in America is in a state of evolution, and has been for decades, but more so now than ever.  The role of the library is the same as it has always been, to provide access to information and entertainment resources to the public.  But how that happens has been evolving and rapidly as a result of the internet.  Right now libraries across the country are in this very bizarre situation of having massive increases in usage and dwindling budgets.  That increase in usage stems from the volume of digital media that our society is pumping out, and people’s ability to access the online world.  This is not only changing the way we do our jobs at the library, but the services that we need to provide to the public.  In order to meet that challenge Libraries need to have the foresight to adapt or be considered superfluous to a municipality’s budget.  It’s that serious.

The American Library Association Office of Information Technology Policy released a policy brief for libraries entitled Confronting the Future: Strategic visions for the public library.  It identifies four spectra that every library needs to consider when in the process of strategic planning.  They are as follows:

Physical Libraries – Virtual Libraries
Individual Libraries – Community Libraries
Collection Libraries – Creation Libraries
Portal Libraries – Archive Libraries

All of these are a continuum between two extremes.  I can’t imagine a single library in the country, or any other country, that is wholly one side or the other on any of these continua.  We all fall somewhere in the middle to one side or the other.  But I think the trend lines for each of these has serious consequences in terms of what we do as a profession.  And the implication of this policy briefing, whether they explicitly stated it or not, is that most all libraries are moving to some degree from the left to the right of these spectra.  It’s a slow process, but this is really the vision of the future.  Take it as you will.

I believe that much of the work that I’m doing in the library is in keeping with this vision of the future.  So here’s a chunk of what I believe needs to be done.  These are kind of a list of ultimatums, but I think that they are critical issues that need speedier resolution than more people would imagine.  This is what’s happening NOW, and needs to be done NOW.

We need to train or fire tech-deficient librarians.  Period.

I hate to be harsh, but you cannot be useful to anyone if you cannot operate a computer at a level to help someone do the basic things that we need to do every day.  Everyone from the lowest paid cashier at the grocery store to the upper level management of the federal government require to post their resumes and job applications online.  If you can’t sit down and walk someone through a web form, and be able to on the spot diagnose problems with the computer hardware and software, then you are not serving our patrons.  But we’re not just talking about simple users; we’re also talking about complex user situations: using various forms of hardware (phones, game consoles, ebook readers, music players) in conjunction with a computer.  You’ve got to be able to explain all of that, and walk someone through the complex issues surrounding creating and modifying content for use online.  The folks who developed the 23 things are awesome, and I praise them for the work that they did.  But it is no longer just fun, or optional.  This is our world, and to not know these things is to be functionally illiterate.  I would go so far as to say that librarians should be required to have continuing education credits in order to maintain their professional standing.  Numerous other professions require it, and we should too.

The Digital Divide is Getting Worse, We Can’t Forget That

We’ve nearly stopped using the phrase “digital divide” in our daily conversations, but the reality is that it is even more problematic than ever.  As libraries make crucial budget decisions between purchasing physical and digital copies of books we are making decisions about which class of people can access this content.  This means that we are making class decisions about who can read something and who can’t.  Unless the library begins purchasing eReaders for people then there is no way that we can make this an equitable situation.  This is why we can’t move to a wholly virtual library any time soon.  Even if we were to give people the opportunity to load this content on public computers, the time spent on them is limited because computers themselves are limited resources that are valuable pieces of real estate.  Yes, more people have access to computers than before, but not necessarily high speed internet access.  So their ability to interact with the online world is limited even more.  Perhaps if we were able to combine this with print on demand then we could bridge the divide a little more concretely, but under current copyright law we’d be going to jail for that.  But don’t get me started on DMCA.

People Want to Connect and Play

People still crave company, and in today’s socially networked world, there is still a desire to see people face to face.  Lots of people talk about the “third place” that is neither home nor work where people can connect or disconnect as they wish.  The Library is one of those places.  However, what people are looking for is changing as well.  Sure there are people who are interested in learning how to use computers, but that’s not the heart of what people are looking for.  Entertainment outside of the mainstream is where it’s at, and probably where it’s going to stay. There are plenty of places that people can go and read, but there are fewer places where people can go and learn how to salsa dance, or knit, or write a novel, or learn about local history.  People are increasingly interested in niche things, and the library has always been a place to explore obscure ideas.  It is also becoming a place to explore those things with other people.  They need a place to experiment and play with things socially.

People Want to Contribute, and We Should Let Them

If Wikipedia has taught us anything it’s that people love to contribute to things.  There are 14.8 million Wikipedia users and 3.6 million articles.  It is the largest encyclopedia that has ever been created in history.  Wikipedia proves that people love sharing their information and their wisdom with other people, and they will do it for free, without hesitation.  Hell, they may even donate millions of dollars to support it!  People are posting millions of tweets a day.  People are sharing articles and photos on Facebook by the billions.  I don’t understand why so many libraries are resistant to the simplest things like allowing people to comment on their blogs or contribute reviews to the catalog.  By allowing users to add content to the library’s site and catalog gives them a sense of belonging more than ever.  They are a part of various online communities already. This increases the library’s value to the community and guarantees that when the choice for funding comes up that they will say absolutely yes.  We also need to realize that we don’t know everything.  There is a body of knowledge out there that is only available via crowdsourcing and to ignore it keeps us in the dark.

Libraries Need to Provide Value Added Content

There are zillions of content providers out there, but none of them have the kinds of resources that we have to provide perspective on the world we live in.  Our staff are content experts of various stripes, and we all know it.  Every library has a website, and that website needs to push content out to the world.  Through our own value added content we can promote the materials in the collection, shed light on little known resources, dredge up amazing bits of history and all without the burden of being beholden to advertisers, corporations, or political partisanship.  The New York Public Library is going so far as to creating interactive apps showcasing library resources from archival collections that people can play with on the iPad.  This is only the beginning of what we can do with what we have at our disposal and the experts that we have on staff.

Libraries Need to Lead the Fight against EULAs and DRM on eBooks

Anyone who has ever worked in purchasing academic journals knows that publishing companies are ruthless, money grubbing bastards.  Academic journal companies continue to jack up prices, making journals unaffordable in volume, which limits access to information to only those institutions who can afford to pay the blood money required to keep them.  And then we have to turn around and pay for the content again in database form! Why are we still perpetuating this bullshit?  And now, on the brink of the eBook revolution we’re getting into these questions about how much we can control the use of eBooks with our patrons, thus limiting the “damage” to the publishers bottom line.  Harper-Collins decided to pull a slick move and limit their DRM on their eBooks to have them self-destruct after 26 uses.  Not to mention that during contract renewals prices are going up. Well, the Kansas State Librarian called bullshit on that and pulled their contract with Overdrive entirely.  We need more people who are willing to stand up against this kind of poor business behavior, and flip the script.  She’s now looking to get the eBooks onto a new service of her own.  The more that we allow other companies to control the content that we’re providing our users, the more they will extort us for money that we don’t have, and then we have to start cutting content.  We’ve been down that road before.  We need to control our own eBooks, just as we control our own physical books.

I’m sure that after tomorrow I’m going to walk away with about a dozen more things that we need to be doing.  I’ll make sure and let you know.

Copyright Musings

This week I’ve had copyright law on the brain.  Nancy Sims, librarian and copyright lawyer was interviewed for a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on some things folks need to know about copyright law but don’t. But mostly this is on my mind because I was poking around through Andy Woodworth’s blog over on WordPress and found this vehement post against CD ripping at libraries.  This came from a longer debate that was raging on another library listserve that I just didn’t bother to read, because if it ran anything like the comments in the post then I didn’t want to bother.  Lots of people weighed in on different sides of the debate: yes, we should allow people to rip CDs but only their own; no, we shouldn’t allow anyone to rip CDs because they could be infringing copyright.  blah blah blah.

Andy, I’m sorry, but I’m not with you on this one.  And here’s why.

First off, we’re not the copyright police.  We’re often lucky that we have enough staff to open the doors, much less monitor what’s going on at people’s public computers.  No one is going to sit there any monitor patron behavior to find out if they’re illegally ripping CDs.  It’s just not going to happen.  If you actually have the time to monitor all of the activities in a computer lab you are doing your job wrong.  There are people who are the copyright police and those are the folks who hold those copyrights.  If they want to visit every public library in the United States I dare them to do so.  When our public computers log out after each session, whatever content may have been put on that machine is erased.  There is no transaction history logged.  It’s as if no one was ever there.  Which makes this issue unenforceable and untraceable.

Secondly, we offer legitimate services that for all intents and purposes approximate the same practice.  With certain downloadable media, there is no real way to monitor the DRM status of materials downloaded to an external device, be it desktop, laptop, MP3 player or iPod.  They just trust that you will delete that content from your drive when the time period has expired.  Let’s be real about this.  Who is really going to do that?  When someone discovers that their content hasn’t been wiped off their machine, they’re just going to keep it, cause really, why not?  Now you tell me, what is the difference between allowing the person who downloads an MP3 via a legitimate file sharing service that we operate, and the person who rips a Library CD?  The only difference is the legal arrangement for these different formats, and the fact that they differ at all is totally stupid.

But lets get to the more important question here.  Because this isn’t about the legality of ripping CDs at all.  This is about the state of current copyright law and rights enforcement in an era where supply has basically become infinite and demand can always be met at a moment’s notice.

This whole situation really blew things out of the water with Napster. Does anyone remember Napster?  Oh, wait, it still exists…  Just as a recap, this was one of the file sharing services that exploded in 1999, and became so amazingly popular (especially on college campuses) that the RIAA sued them for massive amounts of copyright infringement, and won, leading to the eventual shutdown and sale of the service (or really it’s name) to BMG, and then having it shuffled off to one lower level retailer after another.  Did that stop file sharing?  No.  After Napster there was Grokster, Kazaa, Limewire, etc. etc. etc. It’s just never really going to stop.

In eBook land let’s talk about the Harper Collins fiasco that came out earlier this year.  Harper Collins basically said that they would only provide an eBook DRM license allowing public libraries to share an eBook 26 times before they would kill that eBook.  This led to some hilarious YouTube videos where librarians examined the number of times physical copies of books were checked out (upwards of 40 checkouts and still in good condition on a shelf) and that some Harper Collins books even had lifetime guarantees on them.  It was a laughable moment.  Why?  Why would you treat an eBook worse than you would a physical book?  It makes no sense.  Especially since the DRM on those items from our vendor restrict the number of times it can be “checked out” for download at any given time.

Then there are television shows and movies.  I’m just going to link to this cartoon to explain my opinion on that. Oh, but let me include this video from the IT Crowd as well.  But let me just make one comment here about air time and web time.  The internet makes the original air date, the date of air for the entire world.  Over the latest memorial day weekend BBC America did not air the new episode of Doctor Who, which means that they are now out of lock stop with BBC1, where Doctor Who airs in Britain.  Yes, Memorial Day is a big holiday in the U.S., but given that people have DVRs and that Doctor Who fans in the U.S. are absolutely rabid about this show does anyone think it would make a difference?  No.  Because the lead up to this last Saturday’s mid-season finale was so intense that I will guarantee you that damn near everyone who watches Doctor Who in America went and downloaded that content from somewhere.  Will they watch it again on BBC America.  Absolutely.  But they’re going to watch it as fast as they can, because they can’t get it fast enough.

The RIAA & MPAA have been trying to pull downloadable content off the web, and sue people for millions of dollars for years.  And they’ve gotten away with it so far.  But the reality is that file sharing sites crop up all the time. And no matter how many times people pull them down, they will continue to come up again and again.  There are so many places to go that it’s impossible to even begin to try to fight it unless you have the money of these lobbyists or the backing of a federal agency.

But again, we’re asking the wrong question.  It’s not, how can I crack down on things that are violating my copyright, but  how can I profit in an era where everything is available practically all the time?  How do I change my business model to take advantage of this new behavior that is on the web?

Let’s start with CDs, since that’s where this conversation began.  Just ignore ripping CDs.  People share CDs and rip them all the time.  There is nothing that’s ever going to stop that.  We fought that battle when it came to audio cassette tapes.  Thankfully the music industry has finally gotten to the point where they can provide content online through things like iTunes or Amazon MP3 so that people can legitimately download their content for a reasonable price.  But people are still downloading music and sharing music over file sharing websites.  But then there are some bands who just give their content away for free through sites like Magnatune and Jamendo.  Before that bands were putting their tracks on MySpace and DMusic.  It’s a way to get your name out there, to spread your content and promote yourself.  Even megastars are exploring new methods of content delivery like Amanda Palmer and Radiohead giving people the option to download their music through their website at a price that they name (including nothing), and Lady Gaga releasing her new album on Amazon MP3 for $.99 and demand being so crazy that it crashed Amazon’s servers DDOS style. These are forward thinking bands.  They understand the internet and are experimenting with different sales and delivery methods, and it’s working.

Over in eBook land we have similar things going on.  Cory Doctorow has been releasing his books for free in eBook format for a long time, but he has had to negotiate and wrangle with his publishers to make that happen.  And sales of physical printed copies, as well as sales of eBooks are still good.  Seth Godin in an interview at BoingBoing discussed his new eBook venture, where they will be giving away free copies of eBooks via his publishing imprint, and selling physical copies.  And this is not just a route for famous people either.  Amanda Hocking has become the poster child for new media success, by making millions selling her books for $.99 on Kindle.

Movies and television are slowly getting there through sites like Netflix and Hulu.  Through Netflix people were able to watch the series Spartacus: Blood and Sand and its companion piece Spartacus: Gods of the Arena on the same air date.  Hulu gives you the content the day following broadcast, with commercials at certain intervals with a limited number of back episodes.  Though the Hulu Plus the low monthly fee service gives you access to a much broader backlog of shows.  These are not perfect by any means, but they are still legitimate methods of content delivery that are changing the way we deal with television and films on the internet.

We are at a point where we need to rethink the value of existing copyright laws, experiment with these new delivery methods, and find a place where artists and authors can prosper through the new media.  We are wasting our time with enforcing a system that was developed centuries ago to protect the value of a supply line.  The supply line no longer exists.  The value is on the value of the content, not the physical or virtual product.  People will pay for content that is delivered in a timely fashion at a price that makes sense to them, and when it exceeds realistic expectations they will turn to pirated media.  This is not a devaluing of an artist’s work, it is a recalibration of the market to meet a new publishing medium.  Publishers, broadcasters and other content providers need to find a way to make their content available to people legitimately or face media piracy.  If they cannot step up and deliver their content to eager users, others will do so for them and then they lose.

As a librarian am I going to show someone how to download something from a bit-torrent client?  Even if bit torrent sites weren’t blocked by our firewall, I probably wouldn’t.  I would, however, have a conversation with them about legitimate download sites, like Overdrive, and how they work.  Am I going to show someone how to rip a CD?  Absolutely, because that is a skill that is a part of every day life now.  There is no reason why I cannot instruct someone on how to convert their content to a new medium for their own personal enjoyment and turn around to load that on their phone, mp3 player, or iPod.  It is a technical skill, agnostic of the legality of the content being used for the process. It’s like teaching someone how to build a website, fill out a web based job application, create a blog, establish an email address or get on Facebook.  It’s yet another skill that we need to have in order to live in our society.  By not teaching someone who comes to the library about it we create a knowledge divide between people who have home computers and those who don’t.  People want to get media, we want to provide media.  We need to figure out how to make it happen and not how to create another digital divide.