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Friday, January 1, 2010

What can be done about DRM?

Recently, I decided to give Audible a whirl and picked up a copy of What Would Google Do and A Christmas Carol.  The quality of the books was excellent and I really enjoyed the convenience of "reading" while doing other things.  Two aspects of the service, however, caused me to close my account.  The first was the subscription nature of the service.  For a monthly fee you accrue credits which can be used to redeem audio books.  I'm one of the lucky ones and do not have a long commute to work so I don't really need to get 20 hours of books each month.  Currently, the most affordable plan is $15 a month for one credit, which typically equates to one book.  Given my short commute, I can't justify $180 a year for audio books.  If there was another plan, perhaps 1/2 credit for $7 a month, I might consider being a member.

The second, and most important, factor in my decision to cancel my account was DRM.  Although the software used to download and install the books into my iTouch iPod worked as advertised I still had reservations about my ability to access my content.  Audible plainly says that the books are DRMed and tied to a device.  Much like my music files, I really do not want my content to be locked to a particular device.  I paid for it so I should be able to use it as I choose.  If Audible goes away, I'm likely to lose access to my content.  How can I "switch" my DRMed audio book to my new 6th generation GPhone if Audible isn't around to help me?  My Sony eBook Reader can play MP3 files but it isn't possible for me to slap an Audible book onto it for use on a long trip.  In short, I hate the fact that I don't have complete control over the content that I have purchased.  Is there a better way?

Maybe. I love ebooks which are typically encumbered with DRM  and have the same control issues.  Luckily, there a few providers that use a model that makes sense to me.  For certain subjects, I will purchase books from The Pragmatic Bookshelf.  When I buy content from them, they remember what I've bought and allow me access to my content in a variety of DRM-free forms.  If I'm on a computer, I can read my content as a PDF.  If I've got my Sony eBook Reader handy, then I read my content in epub.  If I had a Kindle, I could get it in mobi format.  My choice.  I like that.  The content that I purchase has a tiny watermark that says that this file belongs and that it should only be read by myself.  Makes sense to me.  I like to think that I'm an honest guy so until I upload my files to some torrent site then I should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed fair use of my purchased content. I don't doubt that Audible would love to go the way Apple has gone with music and the Pragmatic folks have gone with ebooks and open up the use of their content, but until they do, I'm taking my business elsewhere.  I won't risk losing my investment in a media that can't be used even after the originating company goes away.  It just doesn't make sense to me.  I try to "vote with my wallet" where I can and purchase open content whenever I can find it.  At some point, some forward thinking rights holder is going to figure out that they can make more money but getting their content onto more devices instead of restricting access because somebody might steal it.

How about this for a scenario: I write a nice little action adventure novel and decide not to give the rights out to one of typical publishing houses.  What if I license the material in such a way that anybody can create an audio form of the book as long as I get credit for the original work and a slight royalty on any sold copies?  I can picture some small theater houses with some voice talent and recording set up creating their own version of the material.  Since I only get paid when they get paid, there really isn't a risk on their part.  If the product is good, we both win.  If multiple parties create versions of the material, it becomes a business opportunity for somebody to manage the abundance of material and provide some insight into the quality of each production.  When I buy music I rely on the ecosystem that has formed around digital music that makes it easier to discover songs that I'm likely to like and to purchase them.  Can't we figure out a way to do that with digital books?   So many devices have so many capabilities these days.  It seems like a missed opportunity to restrict what device can play what content.

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