When there’s no legitimate way to make money, dinosaur publishers resort to digital vandalism to create scarcity artificially. Technical measures that prevent reading digital books or listening to digital music are as ridiculous as this chair:
DRM farces are like London buses. You wait for ever, and then several come along at once. After writing my story for ComputerWorld about the blackout of the Hugo awards by a copyright enforcement robot with no concept of “fair use”, along came an even more stunning story. Yes, the big rally to reselect Barak Obama as candidate for the upcoming US elections was hit by a shoot-first-ask-questions-afterwards bot claiming to be protecting just about every content provider imaginable.
So I’ve updated and expanded the story for InfoWorld – take a look. The key quote:
“When a technologist embodies their or their employer’s view of what’s fair into a technology-enforced restriction, any potential for the exercise of discretion is turned from a scale to a step, and freedom is quantized. That quantization of discretion is always in the interest of the person forcing the issue.”
When you assign algorithms to make subjective judgements, they can’t. Instead, they impose the biases of the people who created them. The content distributors, like UStream and YouTube have a bias, created by US law, to block anything that might turn out to be infringing, because that’s how they get “safe harbor”. Thus the technology they wrote or bought from snake-oil suppliers is imposing their bias.
We fix it not by getting the suppliers to do better bots – they can’t, algorithms are incapable of subjective judgement – but by fixing the law so it doesn’t incent the providers to have this bias.
Digital books are loaned, not sold, so why aren’t they described that way? There’s a big market for digital books, but I think they’re being sold badly, almost to the point of dishonesty. I think it’s time the way their vendors talk about them was changed.
First some illustrations:
- My father just finished reading an e-book and was asking me how he could now pass it on to his nephew. He called to ask how, assuming there had to be an easy way. But there’s no way he can do it without paying for it again (and even then he will find buying an e-book for someone else challenging).
- When my wife and I go on holiday, we often like to read the same books. With paper books it’s pretty easy; all we have to do is use two different bookmarks and make sure we’ve a choice of books so we don’t have to argue about who gets to read! But with e-books, that’s not possible. We either have to share the same e-book account, or we have to buy the book twice.
- Our family are all huge fans of Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series and of Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld books. We have a complete library of them in the house and everyone who lives here (and a few regular guests!) eagerly read and re-read them. If we had bought e-book versions, none of this would be possible (and the fan-base for both authors would be smaller as we’ve hooked several with strategic book loans).
- More than that, some of our books will definitely be bequeathed to our children sooner or (hopefully) later. We’re sure they will want to share some of those with their own children too. Some of the books here are transient but some are definitely here to stay.
Pros and Cons
Personally I have purchased very few e-books. They are usually priced near the cost of the physical book, yet come with few of the benefits. I do understand their attraction though – we have several Kindles in the family and I’ve used them on holiday. There are some compelling capabilities that aren’t present in the ink-on-paper book.
One is the ability to read using the device I happen to have with me (at least in Amazon’s case – Apple only support their own devices so there’s no Android or web readers for their books). Another is the ability to make marginal notes in the book that are non-destructive and reusable. But there are significant down-sides as well. For example, I can’t share e-books with others; I can’t pass them on; I can’t re-sell them; I can’t bequeath them.
e-books as library
There’s another source of books our house uses like this. It’s the public library. Even the books I get there are more shareable than e-books, but the serial use pattern of the public library seems to me a better analogy for the usage I’m able to gain from e-books. In addition, the rights I have to an e-book are closer to those I have to a library book than to one I have purchased. For example, Amazon’s Kindle store does not sell me a book; rather, it gives me a perpetual right to borrow it for personal use, a right they can revoke at will but which I can reasonably assume I’ll be able to exercise when I want to read the book again.
If the e-book stores had framed their business as a super digital lending library (with prices to match) I might be an avid customer by now. Instead, by saying I am buying the book, and charging prices that are a delta on the cover price rather than a delta on the cost of a lending library, they draw my attention increasingly to all the things I can’t do – lend, share, resell, bequeath – and I usually order the paper version. Perhaps it’s time for some reframing? Maybe for app stores too?
[First published on ComputerWorldUK]
I’ve been watching the music marketing stunt that Amazon have pulled today with some interest. The story is that Amazon US are selling the new Lady Gaga album Born This Way in digital-only form for $0.99 today only – the whole album for the price of a track (no luck in the UK where the album is £3.99). As the news has spread, it’s obviously being bought in huge quantities – it’s currently the #1 purchase – and transferred straight to Cloud Drive, Amazon’s new online music locker and player.
Except it’s not. Customers have now been reporting for several hours that it’s not showing up in their accounts – only the digital booklet and in some cases one or two tracks are showing up. Amazon admits there’s a problem – their PR folk are churning out responses (clearly cut and paste from Twitter) to press inquiries saying
We’re experiencing high volume and downloads are delayed. If customers order today, they will get the full @ladygaga album for $0.99. Thanks for your patience.
That text has also replaced the bold claims about being able to listen to the album straight away on the product page. What could possibly be going wrong? After all, it’s very straightforward to add a pointer to a shared file into a directory, and I think that’s all Cloud Drive does with purchased music (which is why storing it there is free – symbolic links are virtually free). Amazon is clearly embarrassed by it – they are busily deleting customer comments from the product if they even mention the outage, regardless of the star rating.
One clue is the product details of the album. They include the text “Record Company Required Metadata: Music file contains unique purchase identifier. Learn more.” Follow the link and you’ll find:
Embedded in the metadata of each purchased MP3 from this record company are a random number Amazon assigns to your order, the Amazon store name, the purchase date and time, codes that identify the album and song (the UPC and ISRC), Amazon’s digital signature, and an identifier that can be used to determine whether the audio has been modified. In addition, Amazon inserts the first part of the email address associated with your Amazon.com account
I think that’s the answer. My hunch is that the GagaGate meltdown is all the fault of DRM. Rather than just adding a pointer to a shared file to the Cloud Drive, Amazon are required by the record company to create a unique copy of the file for every customer,
watermarked digitally signed to show who bought it. What’s more, the unique copy includes at least one MD5 hash that has to be computed on a per-file basis. So Amazon has both an enormous computing task and potentially an enormous storage bill (assuming it doesn’t just compute the watermark signature on the fly at download, which is possible but doesn’t help with the compute bill).
All for what? Removing the metadata is unlikely to be massively challenging (albeit illegal under the DMCA). This means the record label is crippling their retailer’s business just so it can express its mistrust and low esteem for its paying customers while doing pretty much nothing to actually protect revenues - that it already knows will be enormous – from serious criminals. Congratulations to the label, you’ve managed to turn a great example of how to compete with “free” into a bad experience for your customers.
One more observation: The Amazon UK digital download does not mention watermarking/signing. I wonder whether it’s because the record label trusts the British, or whether it’s just not disclosed?
[Updated to reflect information I received that the file has a uniquely-computed digital signature added, rather than a watermark. Lower (still significant) compute burden but even easier to remove]
It’s possible that you think that unauthorised use of copyrighted music, films and books is such a serious problem that it’s worth giving away a little of your convenience and freedom in exchange for stopping it. I’d like to suggest you think again. Digital Restriction Methods (DRM) aren’t just a nuisance that treats all customers as if they had stolen what they actually paid for. They also threaten our future cultural heritage.
Continued on ComputerWorldUK…
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While the decision by the US Library of Congress to create exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for unlocking cellphones and jailbreaking iPhones (among other things) in the USA are very welcome, the reaction has been just a touch too euphoric. Not by everyone, mind you. Dan Gilmore begins to explain why this isn’t a solution, and Wendy Seltzer nudges close to the problem as well. But plenty of people think they’ve been granted more than they really have.
What’s happened? Well, the DMCA makes it an offence in the USA to circumvent technical copyright protections created by the manufacturer. The law was aimed at protecting digital restriction measures (DRM, other people may expand the term differently!) but through poor drafting also provided a welcome legal weapon for ink cartridge manufacturers, cellphone makers and a variety of other classes of technical business to lock their competitors out of the market.
Notably, it was probably an offence to unlock a cellphone or jailbreak an iPhone in the USA under the DMCA. In US law, the Library of Congress are able to define copyright uses that are exempted from DMCA cover, and after pressure from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) they have applied a three-year exception for several common acts including these and making DVD backups.
There are two big reasons I’m only vaguely impressed, and neither of them are down to the fact that I live in a different jurisdiction where the trend is opposite. One concerns market power and its potential abuse, the other concerns global trade. Both lead to a toxicity which is harmful to digital liberty in general.
First, market power. This action only removes one weapon (admittedly a nasty one) from the arsenal that is available to Apple and other behemoth corporations to control the market in which they operate. Unlike printer manufacturers, they can no longer file suit against you under the DMCA when you want to operate outside the patterns they have deemed acceptable for their customers and partners. They should probably never have been able to – copyright already has plenty of exceptions concerning fair use and reverse engineering that should have been respected when the DMCA was created. But Apple won’t have a problem enforcing their will without it. The contractual terms they are able to impose on both their partners and their customers do the trick perfectly well.
Yes, participation is optional, but to avoid getting burned you have to stay out of their kitchen completely. As a customer it’s too late to discover your device is incompatible with something you want to do after you’ve invested in it for a few months, and as a partner it’s too late to discover your business is too close to something Apple would rather control and own once you’ve submitted the app to the store. They can’t have you thrown in jail so easily any more, but they can just as easily prevent you participating and impose sanctions if you fight back.. They will no doubt continue to do so as capriciously as they have already.
Having just got a great Android phone, I’m less gloomy about this than I was; Android is a powerful Foundation to Apple’s Empire (as long as there’s no Mule – check Wikipedia if you’re behind on your Asimov). It’s possible that the removal of the DMCA as a blunt instrument may be enough to balance the market forces and promote true competition, facilitated by open source.
Second, global trade. US legal norms for technology businesses for patents and copyrights may still be forming (for patents they are still “only” the result of case law), but that hasn’t stopped the US Trade Representative (USTR) and US trade missions globally from treating them as if they were handed down on stone tablets. They have been using conformance with “US norms” as a trading card in their rough games of political poker with various world governments. You know the sort of thing. “Nice export industry you have there for your agricultural produce. It would be a shame if anything happened to it. You can make sure it doesn’t if you legislate to prevent your citizens harming our noble media industries.” Kipling wrote about it eloquently, but people are still paying the USTR-geld.
Which is probably the intent of the copyright- and patent-dependent companies sponsoring the action anonymously through their trade associations. If they can get foreign governments to make hard rules where they can only persuade their own governments to make soft rules, the battle is all but won for them. They can use “international harmonisation” as the justification to get the draconian rules reinstated. That seems to be the reason ACTA has been given so much endorsement by the USA, as well as why they have been so keen on veiling its proceedings in secrecy. It’s not just USTR either – the equivalent functions in the European Commission seem to be working just as hard against their citizens’ interests.
My positive reaction to the decision by the Library of Congress is thus more out of a sense of gratitude toward the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and their excellent and insightful team than any long-term relief. It was largely their work that produced this advance and it will likely be their work that holds back the process I’ve outlined. No wonder the media industry puppets hate this sort of organisation. But no-one should believe for a moment that this development makes it OK to jailbreak your iPhone. Doing that is asking for trouble. Its masters have merely been pushed back a layer in their defences, and temporarily at that.
In my interview in this episode, I focused on digital liberty issues, which I believe to be hugely important and becoming more so every day. If you’re ready to find out more about the issues I discussed, here’s a quick guide along with hints on taking action. I mentioned writing to your MP and MEP – there’s an encouraging guide to read if the idea makes you nervous.
Driven no doubt by ‘input’ from their suppliers, the BBC have requested permission from the regulator OfCOM to be allowed to add digital restriction measures to their digital TV broadcasts. Many groups – including OSI – are concerned about this. OfCOM are seeking input on how to respond to this request. If you are a UK license-fee payer, you should write to OfCOM today and tell them how you feel about this. The Open Rights Group have everything you need to get started.
Digital Economy Bill
The Digital Economy Bill (or “#debill” to the Twittering classes) is a legislative pastiche covering a wide range of issues. There’s no doubt that the issues it addresses are important to British citizens. But the Bill seems to have been very heavily influenced (albeit with care) by lobbyists from media industries and lacks adequate protections for the rest of us.
It has been framed along the lines of “stop pirate downloaders robbing Cliff Richard of his pension” but it contains many badly considered measures that will affect our digital liberty. Worse, there has not been time spent in Parliament considering this problem. Worst of all, the Bill looks certain to be waved though on a nod and a wink following an inadequate second reading on April 6th in a big rush to avoid the election.
So what can you do?
- The best and first thing you can do is to contact your MP using WriteToThem and ask them to sign Early Day Motion 1223.
- Donate to the 38Degrees campaign to purchase advertising.
- Follow campaign news at the ORG blog.
ACTA is the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (although it covers far, far more than just the creation of counterfeit goods). This is a big topic I’ve written about here a few times. The best primer on ACTA is probably the Wikipedia page. My illustration about fungus came from a blog post of mine a while back, and you’ll like the LQN summary and the blog by Michael Geist I mentioned.
To take action, start with the action summary I suggested after my visit to FLOSS Weekly.
As political issues become more and more technology-dependent, it’s important that we ask out political representatives to get educated and pay personal attention rather than just listening to lobbyists. They are, after all, supposed to be representing us human citizens and not the interests of abstract legal-fiction corporations. Both DeBill and the surveillance society in the UK come from listening to to too many lobbyists and not enough voters. They need to know that geeks vote too.
What can you do?
- Why not join in with the Vote Geek community? There’s no better way to focus attention on digital democracy than to ask informed questions about it.
- Upload election leaflets at The Straight Choice to help create transparency over election tactics.
§ The Open Source Initiative Board has added OSI to the list of organizations asking that the BBC not be allowed to add digital restriction measures to digital broadcasts in the United Kingdom. The BBC’s request to do so is being reviewed by the UK regulator, OfCOM, and OSI is supporting the position statement from the UK’s Open Rights Group and encouraging others to do likewise.