The Right to Read

I stumbled across this the other day – it’s a sort of story about the future, or what it might be like, if we continue to allow both large corporations and the government dictate what we do with the information we buy.

I came across it because I was reading about Amazon’s new e-book reader thing, the Kindle. At first glance, I love the idea. However, more than a few people have looked at the logical conclusion of things like this (and the atrocious licensing agreements that accompany them) and suffice to say, they aren’t happy.

The basic problem here is, as usual, DRM. (That’s supposedly for “digital rights management,” but a more accurate description would be “digital restrictions management.”)

Think about the problem like this: when you buy a book, you OWN it. You can read it, give it to others to read, and so forth. You can even sell it if you want to – or give it to a used book store to re-sell to others. Or donate it to a library and let them lend it to people. These are inherent rights that you have based on your ownership of a physical object.

However, with an e-book, you don’t have those rights. Or, more accurately, with an e-book protected by draconian DRM, you don’t have those rights. DRM is designed specifically to prevent you from sharing with others or re-selling to anyone else. And what’s worse is that if you should find a way around the DRM, you’re in violation of the DMCA – and the punishment for that is quite severe.

With DRM, you don’t own anything anymore. You’re effectively “leasing” or “renting” or “subscribing” to a service – the book – which can be revoked at any time based on the terms of the agreement. And just like renting, you can’t sub-let (sell to someone else) or let someone else use it instead of you (at least, not without the consent of the original owner – which, in case you missed it the first time, is not you).

This is not a good situation to be in as a consumer, and the story I linked to in the first paragraph illustrates one possible future, if you draw things out to their logical conclusion.

Now, I’m not saying that DRM isn’t necessary (in certain cases), or that leasing/renting digital media (be it music, videos, books, or even software) isn’t a valid option – but as usual, it’s all about context. And, of course, striking a balance between the needs/desires of content owners/creators (control the means of production, prevent reselling, squeeze as much money from consumers as possible) and consumers (who basically want everything for free).

In this case, of course, the market has spoken quite loudly and clearly – we’re just waiting for the market to listen. So far, it hasn’t.

People (consumers) clearly want to be able to use digital media in the same way that they used physical media – i.e. books, CDs, tapes, movies, etc.; which is to say, they want to be able to occasionally lend them to a friend (without penalty), re-sell them at any time, and use/play them in any machine of theirs that they want (in the car, at the summer house, on a plane, etc.).

Most DRM at the moment does not allow you to do any of the above. You can’t lend a product with DRM to a friend (it’s tied to your account), you can’t re-sell it (again, tied to your account), and you can’t use/play it in any machine of yours that you want (you might be allowed to do so a few times, but after you exceed some arbitrary limit, it locks you out of your own content).

If you think about this for a moment, it seems very odd that a company that has customers is so willing to ignore what they want – and would be willing to pay for – just to slap “DRM” on it to maximize future profits. You’d think they’d realize that their consumers just won’t put up with it – I mean, people know file sharing is wrong, and yet they do it all the time. Why? Because they want to do these things, but DRM doesn’t let them. So they find ways around it – and they are so adamant about these “rights” of theirs that they are willing to break the law to do so. So why do companies continue to do it? How, in a free market, can they survive while mis-treating their customers so?

More astute readers might at this point be forming the word “monopoly” in their minds, and that’s… part of the issue. The other part is simply apathy on the part of the consumer, and the fact that their is a lot of slick advertising out there making it seem like DRM is a feature that we (as consumers) should love so much that we demand it be included in everything we buy. It also doesn’t help that this whole arena of digital products (and the distinction between digital media and physical media, which many people don’t quite get) is rather new, and most people aren’t really up-to-speed on the ramifications of it.

Basically, there are 2 ways that things can work out from here. One way is outlined in “The Right to Read,” which is the story that got this whole post rolling in the first place. The other way is an outcry from consumes so loud that media (and I’m talking all media companies here, from music & movies to books, software, and services) have no choice but to make certain concessions and adapt – giving us the rights we obviously want, but still being able to make a buck.

I buy DRM-free songs from iTunes specifically because I don’t want to see us end up in the kind of society outlined in The Right to Read. And the more people who read this article, and understand what it means, the more they will be able to make informed choices in the future, and educate more people, until that wonderful “democracy” effect comes into play (through either government action or, preferably, the free market effect) and things change for the better.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed. In the meantime… spread the word, and try to live DRM-free.