When it comes to DRM, Amazon is a bottom feeding Hell Beast

Written by John Birmingham on November 11, 2012

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away I received a fan letter. It arrived at the magazine where I was working as a columnist and feature writer, but only because the young woman who wrote it didn’t know where else to find me.

Cover of He Died With a Felafel in his HandShe was writing, she told me, to let me know how much she’d enjoyed my book, He Died with a Falafel in His Hand. She had enjoyed it so much that she’d taken her copy to the local library and run her favorite chapters through the photocopiers so she could send the best bits to her friends. She had many friends.

Jeez. Thanks for nothing, lady, I thought. Would it a-killed you to have bought them their own lousy copy?

But that was churlish; a baby author’s response. She probably sold a few books for me doing what she did. And, in the second paragraph of her fan letter, she did very generously offer to have sex with me.

She had sex with a lot of men, she explained, because they smelled nice, or she liked the look of their shoes, and while she wasn’t sure how I would smell or whether my shoes might be appropriate, on the basis of having enjoyed my book so much she was willing to take the risk. If I happened to be in her part of town with a spare ten minutes…

I crumpled the letter up and threw it away.

Sort of wish I’d held on to it, however. I’ve been thinking on that young woman recently. Not because I have a spare ten minutes, but because the more I think about it, the more she did have something to teach me.

The two industries in which I work, media and publishing, are currently ‘restructuring’… in the same way that cities were ‘restructured’ when thousand bomber air fleets appeared in the sky above them between the years 1939-45. Restructuring breaks things and hurts people and the natural human response is usually to avoid it. The pain, the terror, the chance of annihilation explains why very smart people in both of those industries sometimes do very dumb things, like pretending the bombs are not falling, rather than running like hell to a shelter or even fighting back.

Publishing especially seems to have suffered from the paralysis of the doomed.

Having seen how the rise of digital distribution channels wrecked the business models and negated the power of old established houses, book publishers were determined not to suffer the same fate as the music industry, newspapers, network TV, magazines and everyone else who suddenly found their lunch being eaten by a hydra headed monster called the Internet. The threats seemed obvious. The rise of corporations like Google and Amazon appeared like dark thunderheads on the horizon.

Google, a company with a voracious appetite for other people’s intellectual property, and Amazon a bottom feeding Hell beast with no respect for the conventions of the old world, threatened annihilation in any number of exciting ways.

You can see the desperate scramble to escape our fate in, for example, the Justice Department’s case against Apple and half a dozen publishing houses for conspiring to set prices. On a less rarefied level, however, you can also see it in the painful, knotted contortions forced on authors and their publishers by the question of Digital Rights Management.

Eliminate DRM

Image credit: Linuxologist

DRM – a supposed suit of armor crafted from lines of code – was, for a long time, the great hope of us all. Myself included.

Having had that experience with a long-ago fan who thought nothing of copying great slabs of my book and giving them away to her friends, like everyone else in publishing I was struck by the Fear when contemplating a future in which the theft of our work would be so much easier. Whole books copied with a single mouse click. Perfect copies made of perfect copies like the receding line of images created when you hold one mirror up to another.

I, like pretty much everyone else in publishing, except maybe Cory Doctorow, saw our future disappearing off into a darkened vanishing point.

I don’t think that way anymore.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Nowadays I think of DRM as Amazon’s way of establishing itself as both a monopoly provider and supplier of electronic books. I see DRM free titles as the only way of protecting authors and their audiences from capture and enslavement by the beast of Bezos.

But how can this be? How can I go from being so pissed off with one photocopying book thief that I would turn down ten minutes of commitment-free rumpy pumpy – and to hell with what my shoes smelled like – to embracing a publication model that allows anybody who’s handed over a couple of dollars my latest e-book to make and distribute an infinite number of copies?

How? Allow me to indulge in just one wretched buzzword: ecosystems.

When Amazon or Apple sell you an electronic copy of one of my books locked up with DRM they are effectively locking you into the padded cell of their ecosystem. It’s a nice-looking cell, with 24/7 entertainment laid on, as long as your credit rating is good. But it’s a cell, and whatever entertainment might be provided, it comes with some sharp, rusty fishhooks embedded deeply within.

The first point to make clear, of course, is that when you bought my last, best-selling e-book, you didn’t buy it. You sort of… rented it. Or a license to look at it, for as long as Amazon or Apple or any other e-book retailer armored in DRM code feels like letting you look at it.

Every now and then a story will break out and go viral about Amazon – for some reason it always seems to be Amazon – revoking somebody’s right to read the books they thought they had bought. For what ever reason they open up the Kindle and – wham! –they got nuthin’. Sometimes one book may have been deleted. Sometimes a whole library has just vanished. What chance do they have of ever seeing those books again? One tenth of 1% of fuck all.

What is it that allows Amazon, or any e-book retailer, to do this? DRM. Control of the ecosystem.

Until readers actually own the books they buy, and are free to do with them as they see fit, to read them wherever and whenever they want, just like an old-fashioned dead tree book, the growing monopoly power of a retailer like Amazon will go unchallenged. And monopolies are no good for anybody, except for the guy at the top of the food chain telling everybody else how it’s gonna be. (And there’s whole schools of thinking that it’s not much good for him, either).

There are any number of threats and challenges to publishers and authors, and incidentally to readers as well, but the power of Amazon is foremost among them. However as soon as the reader is able to actually buy an e-book, rather than license it, and as soon as that ownership confers on them the benefits of old-fashioned book ownership – i.e., they can do whatever they damn well want with their book – a large part of that monopoly power, or market power, goes away.

So you bought my latest book from Amazon, but you want to read it on your Nook because… Well just because. It’s no business of mine once I’ve been paid. Knock yourself out, kid, because we stripped the DRM off of that sucker. You want to lend a copy to your brother or mother? You paid for it. Why shouldn’t you be able to do that without asking permission or jumping through half a dozen burning digital hoops? Will I lose a sale? Maybe. But if the book’s any good, perhaps I’ll make a whole lot more down the track by reeling in a new reader.

There are caveats, of course. This model works for the sort of electronic books I write. Fast-paced, relatively short novellas priced so low that the barrier to purchase, and the inducements to piracy, are virtually nonexistent. It would also help if my publishers in the US were as quick to release as my Australian overlords, because nowadays people want what they want when they damn well want it, not two or three months later goddamnit. But that’s a topic for another day.

For now, and from now on, the ebooks I write will all come DRM free. If you find some of that nasty shit on your copy, it ain’t mine.

And if you like the book, the coupla bucks you paid for it will be reward enough for me. I really don’t have a spare ten minutes.

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About the Author

John Birmingham

John Birmingham tells stories for a living, some of them true, others... not so much. He writes a column called Blunt Instrument for the Fairfax Digital network and tries to get in some book writing every day.

You can also hang out at his personal blog Cheeseburgergothic.com or just go buy his latest ebook called Stalin's Hammer: Rome; the latest in his Weapons of Choice series of alternate histories.

One Comment

  1. November 13, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    The proprietary ecosystems you describe are hurting the entire industry. Locking a user into a system, like Nook or Kindle or whatever other device or format, is just wrong. The user paid for it but can’t take it with them if they want to switch to a new device. But it’s only logical that they should be able to. Even people who are against piracy would have a hard time arguing that you don’t have the right to take a book that you paid for with you to a new device. The fact that they can’t (without doing nasty things to strip DRM) turns the user against the system where authors and the like get caught in the crossfire.

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