Digital Rights Management, Piracy, and You

*Note: I am writing this post from approximately six inches off the ground. My faithless desk chair, which has been sinking a little lower every day over the past month, has chosen today to finally give up and, in the words of Eddie Izzard, collapse slowly like a flan in a cupboard. I really don’t want to have to get a new chair at this juncture, but I think it may be necessary since the replacement cylinder costs about as much as a new chair. #thisiswhywecan’thavenicethings

When I was in high school and college, peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster and Audiogalaxy were the coolest things on the planet. I had, literally, all the music ever at my fingertips, and it was FREE. I downloaded songs from bands I would never had heard of otherwise, but when I found something I really liked, I went out and bought the album. I discovered my favorite band, Spoon, on Audiogalaxy, and I’ve faithfully attended their shows and bought their CDs ever since.

At least you’ve maintained your cultural relevancy!

Sure, maybe some big studio rock bands lost sales, but indie artists were able to reach audiences who might never have heard them otherwise. In 2000, Metallica decided they’d had enough of people enjoying their music, so they sued Napster–and won. Although the file-sharing site was shut down, like the hydra, two more spawned in its place. The legislation didn’t put an end to digital piracy; it just made the pirates sneakier. Today, you can watch movies on your computer the day they premiere in theaters (my 14-year-old cousin hasn’t been to the movies in a year, but he’s seen more new releases than I have), and I confess to obsessively watching Criminal Minds on youtube.

I think we see piracy as a victimless crime, or rather, we see ourselves as cyber Robin Hoods, stealing from the bloated, rich record companies and movie studios and giving the entertainment to the people. It’s not that we believe creative works are without value, but when it comes to actually purchasing digital media, something in us rebels when we see that an ebook or a downloadable album costs the same as a physical copy. Usually, these downloads come loaded with digital rights management (DRM), which make it difficult or impossible to lend a copy to a friend or transfer the files–which you paid for, even though you could have stolen them–from one device to another. I’ve had to give up several chunks of my music collection when I used up my allotted number of licenses, and I’ve had to wrangle with Audible’s customer service when my audiobooks would no longer play on my computer due to a glitch with iTunes.

The idea of someone coming in my home and taking away my books because I’d read them too many times is absurd, and yet we’ve all too often resigned ourselves to the arcane and overly-restrictive rules of DRM. However, recent trends in publishing, as well as the groundswell of do-it-yourself artists and the anti-trust lawsuit against Apple, are beginning to shift the paradigm.

In 2007, Radiohead, no longer under contract with EMI, released In Rainbows as a set-your-own-price DRM-free digital download before the physical album was available for purchase. Fans paid for it. They bought it online, and then they bought the album (packaged with additional content) in the record shops. The following year, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, disillusioned with his record label, recorded an album and released it for free on his website. His career hasn’t exactly suffered (I love the fact that we can now call him Oscar-winning composer Trent Reznor), and he continues to write, record, and tour with a variety of projects.

This would make an neat tattoo, or at least a bumper sticker.

When I started writing my book during the interim between college and grad school, I was determined to follow the traditional path to getting published. That’s no longer the case. (See my first post for a more detailed look at why I’ve decided to go indie.) Since I’m not signed with a legacy publishing firm, I get to set the price of my ebooks–and keep a lion’s share of the profits. Authors already under contract don’t have that option, and even though most consumers have been grumbling about the price of ebooks, there seemed to be little we could do about it if we wanted to read mainstream fiction. The lending library system for ebooks is even more ridiculous; at my local library, only one patron at a time can “check out” a particular title, and until they “return” it or it becomes due, no one else can access it.

In April of this year, the Department of Justice announced a suit against Apple for colluding with publishers to fix prices. However, Apple’s defeat would be a win for another monopoly. Amazon wants to lower prices. It wants them so low that consumers would have to be crazy not to purchase ebooks in their proprietary format and read them on the Kindle. Both business models–so-called agency pricing from Apple and the bargain basement mentality of Amazon–are anti-competitive in different ways. I’ve no doubt that while agency pricing would fix the price of ebooks at or near the cost of a hardback, Amazon would cheerfully sell every ebook for $.99. (Check out these articles for more info; I’m paraphrasing many of their arguments.)

Warning: It is entirely possible to lose full days of your life in this place. Don’t let the nice lady fool you.

We’ll have to wait another year for the trial, but in that year, I predict a lot of changes are going to take place in the publishing industry. Three of the five legacy publishers named in the DoJ’s suit (HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette Book Group) have already settled, while Penguin and McMillan remain in the fight. However, Tor Books, a subsidiary of McMillan, announced that its entire catalog of ebooks is going DRM-free. J.K. Rowling recently launched Pottermore, a kind of digital wonderland for the Harry Potter universe, and the entire series is finally able for purchase as DRM-free ebooks. Rather than purchasing an entirely new library when you decide, for example, to switch from a Nook to a Kindle, you can simply convert your files using a free program like Calibre.

If it’s good enough for J.K. Rowling, it’s certainly good enough for me. DRM has done little to prevent piracy, but it has frustrated legitimate customers and made digital editions an undesirable alternative to their printed counterparts. To me, it’s a no-brainer; my work will be released DRM-free. I trust my readers (hi, guys!) to be responsible, and if they do pass a copy around to a friend, it will only help grow my audience in the long run. John Scalzi, author of Redshirtsblogged about the change at Tor and how it will positively impact writers and readers. I particularly liked this quote: ”I really do believe most people who can support the artists whose work they like will support them.”

If the work is good and the price is fair, people will pay it. That’s something that major retailers and publishers seem to have forgotten in their scramble to be king of digital media mountain. With pirated copies so easily available, why would we want to make it any more difficult for paying customers to own the things they purchased?

Music for this post: Nine Inch Nails, “The Hand That Feeds”

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One Response to Digital Rights Management, Piracy, and You

  1. Pingback: Copyright and the Self-Published Author | Erin Elizabeth Long

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