Archive for March, 2006

Creation is not control

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

I found Peter Coffee’s e-week column on DRM, Creation is not control, particularly timely as just this week I’ve been trying to figure out how to make my wife’s brand new novel Doublethink (a political satire/thriller a la Babbit/1984) available on line.

The first thing I did was try to buy an ebook on Amazon so I could see how the process worked. Being already much more inclined to paper than pixels, I was unimpressed. Judging by the length of time it took Amazon to give my a link to the book, they must be encrypting these on a per user basis. Can you imagine how successful iTunes would be with this approach?

And then I need to have a Passport Account to read the book? Shades of big brother. It’s a shame this didn’t make it into Doublethink. But I think I will run ethereal to see what Acrobat is doing when I read the Babbit ebook.  For example, are they reporting back which pages I’m reading, or the passages that I highlight or copy?

While there’s a lot to like about Acrobat, I could go on at length about why I think Adobe is wrong-headed in much of their approach. I’ve found that Adobe consistently thwarts any attempts to use pdf in innovative ways — their built-in capabilities (such as JavaScript or FDF) always stop me just short of what I’m trying to achieve. For example, many years ago, we built an expert sales support system for a nearby workstation maker that would not allow Microsoft products to be used. We wanted to make customized presentations based on the profile of a customer, selecting just the slides to be shown. I spent a week delving into pdf, before concluding that it was just too hard to use Adobe products to get this functionality on each laptop.

When we work with pdf now, we’ll manipulate it with xpdf, but this also shows that open standards are not enough, if that “open standard” is proprietary. For example we have a collaborative document management system that uses the open source swish-e indexer/search tool to find free-form text. But Adobe’s new 1.6 pdf format breaks xpdf, so we can’t index these new files. As a result, we’ve started to use CSS2 to make multi-page documents for print-on-demand data sheets. I’m sure Microsoft’s “open” xml document formats will present a similar moving target that makes it hard for developers to keep up.

Anyway, back to DRM. It seems to me that what most readers want is fair use of content they purchase — so they can read it wherever and whenever they want without anyone intruding or monitoring them. And I think what most authors want is some reasonable compensation. My wife already expects people to pass her book around, and in fact that’s why she wrote — so people would talk about the issues it raises. Now the question we face is should we put a pdf up on the web site for purchase, and if so should there be any DRM restrictions. Even if Adobe DRM was available to us as a small business, I can’t figure out how to enable Adobe DRM when I save a document with Acrobat Pro.

But I don’t think we want to put those kinds of restrictions on the document — if someone wants to print a copy — go for it — but it’s really cheaper to buy it from us in printed form. And we want people to pass it around to their friends and family. We just want some way to encourage people to pay for a few copies. In that regard, this is more like shareware. Maybe we just need a brief pop-up that takes people to our site to buy a key to turn off the pop-up?

One thing’s for certain, my wife and I are not going to solve the DRM problem. And it is a problem. It’s been my opinion that DRM triggered the dot-com meltdown (though it probably would have happened eventually anyway). All those business models were saying “we’re going to make it up in volume” and people could believe that proposition as long as the slope of the usage curve was positive, but telecom had to crater as soon as growth flattened when Napster was closed down.

Apple has shown that people will accept some usage restrictions provided they get some benefit. But the mobility benefit of the iPod isn’t relevant to reading material, so what benefit do people get from DRM on books? I sure don’t know.