Banging that DRM again • 18 November 2007 • The SnowBlog

Banging that DRM again

I suppose I didn't really say in that last post about copyright how it relates to books. On the one hand, you probably don't expect most of what I say to have anything to do with publishing by now. On the other, maybe you can guess what I was thinking. I should spell it out, though. The first things that got transmitted over the internet were pieces of text. In fact, in the Olden Days of The Internet, you had to use programs like uuencode to turn anything besides words that you wanted to transmit - like say an image - into a code made up of letters so that it could travel over the special magic text-only wires of the 'net. A small image might take up as much space as several pages of text, so it put more of a strain on the capacity of the early internet. Next was audio, things like MP3 files. A three minute song might take up as much space as a hundred images or a couple of novels worth of words (though by now the internet had become the web and it could handle any sort of file, not just words). The trickiest things to send over the wires (so far) are moving pictures. If you took a movie on DVD and copied the ones-and-zeroes over to those old 3.5" floppies (remember them) you'd need four or five thousand of them. Hence live internet radio sounds fine but live internet TV doesn't really exist. What that all means is that as computers and the web have got faster, images are all over the place and even music is very easy to download - so much so that CD sales are tanking - but swapping movies over the 'net is still something that takes forever and only teenagers can be bothered with. But don't forget, the thing that's easiest of all to swap is text, like, say, a novel. Downloading the zipped up text of a novel from Gutenberg might take a lot less than a second. So why isn't the book trade freaking out like the music companies and the movie studios are? Why aren't they suing everyone and lobbying for changes to the law and hiring brigades of IP lawyers and forcing Microsoft et al to keep adding copy-protection and DRM locks to their computer software? The main reason - really the only important reason - is that good electronic paper is difficult to make while paper paper isn't. I listened to Mariella Frostrup totally fail to understand this concept on Radio 4 the other day. When confronted with the idea of a book that you repeatedly download fresh text into, she could only imagine that the idea was to print out the new pages on your home printer. But it's difficult to imagine a world in which it's both cheap and practical to print out our own books. Much more likely is that a handheld electronic device will do such a good job of replacing or emulating a paper book that for ordinary mainstream novels an electronic version will do fine for the majority of readers. And that's when all this hoo-ha (sp?) about fair use and copying and illegal downloads suddenly applies to publishing: when every novel in print, including your entire back-list, is available for free download from pirate sites to anyone who knows how to do a Google search. Newspapers are already getting a taste of this. And if we lock our electronic books up in the hopes that pirates won't be able to break the locks (which they will) we'll also stop people lending each other books or selling them secondhand. Potentially, our authors might be read by a hundred times as many readers, hardly any of whom pay for the privilege. In the world of music, this is leading to bands using albums as marketing for their live shows. Whether there's an equivalent for authors it's difficult to say. But for publishers I think it will either mean putting lots of effort into enforcement and generally being thought of as heavyhanded money-grabbers or putting some creative effort into completely new ways to make money from writing.


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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