Author & Publisher Strategies

When “evil” destroys dialogue

The term “digital rights management,” or DRM, as the technology used by many publishers to prevent unauthorized copying of their digital titles, is the subject of intensely emotional debate, so much so that the discussion seldom rises above claims that the technology is “evil” or “not evil.” Michael Bhaskar of Pan McMillan leaps into this perennial debate with a nicely reasoned piece that, nevertheless, seeks to justify the idea of limits on use of a text. (TeleRead also likes effort.)

I don’t think DRM is a good idea. It makes using a digital product harder than it needs to be. It also represents the fear among publishers and some authors, that their work will be undermined by people who would give it away freely.

However, DRM is also built on something that could be incredibly useful in a shared e-book, cryptographic identification of multiple readers, so that their annotations and discussions can be parsed logically and presented selectively. I’ve written about this before, in hopes of raising the smog of DRM from the potentially useful features that underlie it.

If the publishing industry let books be copied freely, across more than a few devices, for example, it would create business opportunities by allowing even those who receive a book at no cost to pay a small fee—comparable to the price of an e-book—to add their own thoughts to the page or discuss the book with some coordination provided through cryptographic technology to limit who could see their notes, or selected notes (some annotations may need to be private, because they are controversial or too sensitive to be exposed publicly, but they provide a personal point of reference for framing a discussion linked to the same place in the book).

No, DRM isn’t “evil,” it’s just a barrier to greater use of the text. Turn the whole argument upside down—what could we do with a freely shared crypto-enabled document that let readers integrate their notes and other reading? How could we maintain vast personalized libraries and reference databases secured in the same way that a cash payment at a bookstore provides anonymity?

Then, the problem isn’t unauthorized copies, it is how to identify one’s own copy, so that readers can share and use the information in more meaningful ways. If anyone doubts this is a viable approach, take a look at the growing use of OpenID and Facebook logins to parse and present social relationships with greater personal context online.

Forget “evil,” it’s  meaningless term in the context of computer science.