DRM, the Designated Regret Model for ebook readers

Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

The need to ensure the profitability of people’s work, especially for small and/or independent publishers and authors is obvious. Digital media formats have absolutely changed the game in terms of ease of “unauthorized” redistribution of materials. (The very concept of redistribution of intellectual property being “un/authorized” poses a number of significant philosophical questions.) At the same time, there is something very wrong with the way in which DRM software has been implemented.

The metaphysics of intellectual “property” – do you really own the ideas? can anyone be said to own an idea once it has been put out into the world? where do we draw the line between influence, extrapolation, and plagiarism? can two people spontaneously produce the same ideas? how do you litigate such a case? – are impossible to cover here, if onlyb because there are so few good answers. (And even fewer which are acceptable to the Disney corporation, Bono, and, presumably, the entity or entities which make up the romance novelist “Nora Roberts”.)

One of my issues with ebooks, like many others, is the way in which they destroy the materiality of books. In this case, I don’t mean the way they feel, or smell, or sound, or taste, or whatever sensory aspect people usually invoke. I mean that almost every book I own, and certainly the ones I love, are the means with which I discourse with the author.

Unlike the sterile overprotectiveness which causes such divisions amongst “Booktubers” – the collective reader/writer community of YouTube – my books are heavily marked up. I have usually extensively highlighted, annotated, dog-eared, and sticky-noted any book I found worth my while, in addition to having dropped, sat and spilled and slept on it. I like to lend my books out, and get them back with a little additional wear showing that the other person enjoyed it enough to carry it around with them. (Obviously, I’d prefer that my books come back in a form where they are still legible and mostly intact, but I’m never particularly concerned about their physical status beyond those basics.)

In other words, I’m exceedingly particular about the ways in which I’m allowed to interact with my books. Ereaders, such as the Kindle Paperwhite (and certainly its predecessors), were never going to work for me, because highlighting and annotating are low-priority functions. For now, the ebook app which works best for me is Google Play Books. This is largely thanks to the automatic syncing of highlights/notes to a Google Doc.

Other apps have attempted similar features, but Google has done a remarkable job of making it easy to annotate your reading and make those annotations accessible and usable. Four highlight colors, which are all imported along with their content to the annotations document (It shouldn’t be necessary to remind developers that exporting the color of the highlight is as important as exporting its content but here we are. I’m looking at you, Xodo), allow a range of different active reading methods, and any notes added to a given highlight are exported as a related annotation along with the highlighted text (Again, I didn’t think we needed to remind people of this, but…). It isn’t fully customizable, but it is remarkably flexible.

This isn’t to say that Amazon’s Kindle app can’t or doesn’t do some or all of these things. I merely happen to like Google’s material design. But I’m not actually here to extoll the virtues of one ereader or ebook app over another.

I’m here to talk about personal preference. Almost everyone has had an experience where the format, layout, or design of a book has negatively impacted their experience of it. Some people have almost certainly found themselves unwilling, unable, or at great pains to continue reading a book based on one of those factors, be it font choice, page gutter, or book size. Ebooks are intended to be less susceptible to those types of user experience failures thanks to flowing text, which allows the reader to resize and reformat the text to their liking, making it easier to read purely in terms of eyeball mechanics. (Obviously, format contingent works, such as House of Leaves, are unable to benefit from this kind of malleability.)

When the use multiple and/or variable devices – in a range of sizes and weights – is factored in, the portability and maneuverability made available to readers is unparalleled. (Consider the difference between reading something like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5,000 years (534 pages), Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (641 pages) or K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (891 pages) in a physical format versus a digital one. It’s the difference between being able to read them in bed and needing a table.) Additionally, for people who like to annotate as they read, the digital space is without limitation, because comments and ideas are liberated from the confines of the margin.

This kind of flexibility should make ebooks vastly appealing to people. In so many other parts of our lives, we have been converted by the adaptability, convenience, immediacy, and shareability of the digital world. Newspapers, magazines, videos, television, etc…. And yet, not so with ebooks. This is not down merely to the fact that “book people” are all luddites who prefer the “physicality” of the book.

It’s because publishers have done next to nothing to make the ebook an appealing alternative to its physical counterpart.

The real advantages of the physical book over the ebook are as follows: anything with the prefix “re-”. Re-selling. Re-gifting. Re-mixing. Re-using. Re-reading. Books, unlike most other commodities, are rarely entirely personal. Cars, underwear, and plates of nachos are all things we acquire with the understanding that they are not intended to be shared. I don’t offer to give you my car or a perfect nacho just because I enjoyed it. Books, on the other hand, are regularly swapped, lent, borrowed, entrusted, assigned, given, and gifted.

Adam Driver and the perfect nachos in What If? (2013)

The treatment of a book like a single-use, limited-use, or personal commodity is to fundamentally misconstrue the social use and function of “the book” as a cultural object. Intellectual property may cover the ideas embedded within a book’s pages and may need protecting. But books, in general, exist and proliferate explicitly because those ideas are intended to be distributed.

Why, specifically, am I so mad about this? How does DRM software specifically tie into this screed about the nature of books and ebooks?

The issue moved from the theoretical (intellectual property management in the digital age) to the personal. In the capitalist fashion, this was through financial investment and subsequent “buyer’s remorse”.

It is now abundantly clear to me that the primary way of ensuring that an ebook is not wildly proliferated across the web is to tie the file (in my case, an epub) to a specific reader application (in my case, Adobe Digital Editions). If you do or cannot buy your ebook through one of the combo purchasing/reading ebook ecosystems in accordance with your personal preference (Amazon → Kindle, Google Play Store → Google Books, Barnes & Noble → Nook, Kobo → Kobo, etc.), you may make the mistake of attempting to purchase a DRM protected ebook from somewhere else.

I made the mistake of not reading the fine print.

Always read the fine print. Even if you have to search for it, always, always read it.

Ebooks.com was, I thought, an oasis in the desert. It seemed I would be able to purchase an epub of K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (which is not available through Google Play Books) from them. In my unbridled enthusiasm to dig into the writing of Mark Fisher, I did so.

Don’t want to download the ebooks.com app? Click this link and download an epub, instead. (This was were reading the fine print comes in.) But I didn’t get to download an epub, actually.

What I could download is an acsm file. ACSM stands for “Adobe Content Server Message” and it is a file format which Adobe uses to pull content protected by Adobe’s DRM software to your computer. My unmitigated irritation does not permit me the patience to dig into the technical details of how Adobe uses this method to enable permissions across devices through Adobe Digital Editions to access the ebook. Suffice to say, you create or use an account associated with Adobe products and are able to sync that account’s library.

Just to add insult to injury, once you have opened the ACSM file with Adobe Digital Editions, a copy of the epub (as in, an actual booktitle.epub file) does come to live on your device. Forget opening it, though. It is impossible to open with any software other than an Adobe product. (While someone has undoubtedly designed software specifically designed to crack the DRM code embedded in the file, but I’m not actually interested in stealing anything today.)

The end result of all this is that I cannot read a book I paid $13 to access using the ebook reader of my choice.

Reading is an incredibly personal, intimate experience. Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

You know what I found really galling, though? The thing that finally pushed me over the edge, after paying to be digitally inconvenienced?

Ebooks.com says they cannot accept returns, because they have not handed over a physical object. Therefore, there is nothing to return, according to them. Given how many times I had to feed my email address into Adobe Digital Editions and ebooks.com, I find it exceedingly improbable that they would not be able to revoke my access to any DRM encoded file which requires the usage of their proprietary software to be read.

This isn’t Schrödinger’s epub. The file can’t both exist enough to be monitored and secured with proprietary software and simultaneously be so immaterial that I can’t have my access to it revoked in return for my $13.

It is probable that neither publishers nor the wider “book people” community care very much about how ebooks are managed. The publishers are probably happy to conform to the digital mediocrity produced by proprietary DRM software, as it does the work of securing their IP and therefore their profits, while “book people” are happy to take it as proof that the physical book is still preferable to the digital one, and everyone else is more interested in audiobook integration than anything else.

So this is my rallying cry into the void:

We all deserve better ebooks. Authors and publishers deserve DRM software that limit the amount of mass, “unauthorized” distribution of the material that produces their livelihood, and readers deserve DRM software that doesn’t completely incapacitate their engagement and enjoyment of that same material.

Whether this means cutting out the middle man, so I can buy my ebooks directly from the publisher, or if it means an aggressive diversification of the distribution channels so that more books are available across more services, I neither know nor care. Ideally, it would involve a practice of building new DRM code which enables transfer of the files without copying them, in addition to non-proprietary or locked formats.

Whatever publishers and authors decide, at the moment, the only ones with any respect for their audience are the ones brave enough to distribute their ebooks DRM free.

Speech and Life: thoughts on security in the Internet age

reading: the Hill

The recent terror attacks in London are disturbing and dreadful crimes. But hearing that British PM Theresa May feels that there appropriate response is greater regulation of the Internet makes me worry about where this well-meaning concern (or misplaced hysteria) will lead us.
This past semester I read Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0, for my class, “Media, Technology, and Culture” (for an overview of the book’s basic argument checkout my podcast). Towards the end of the book – in the section where he examines “latent ambiguities” where code and law either don’t quite meet or leave some room for interpretation – he says of the United States:

We have exported to the world, through the architecture of the Internet, a First Amendment more extreme in code than our own First Amendment in law.

(p. 257)

As the global society attempts to manage a world where extremism and linked violent action become more prevalent and more visible, we must realize that it is the legacy of the First Amendment and of American democratic values that allow it. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined into the current structure of the internet in a way it would be impossible (certainly for equal reach) to achieve in “real life”.

There is a lot to be said for making the gap between legal speech and the speech that is possible on the Internet. In recent years, we have had a crash course in the negative outcomes that complete freedom can generate. From Gamergate and doxxing, to the radicalization of men and women by neo-Nazi ideologues and extremist jihadi ideologies. The links between the things we read and see and what we do are becoming starkly visible.

But does that linkage justify a limiting of free speech by government and corporate/commercial entities?

The most obvious question is: how does one determine what constitutes an extremist ideology?

It might seem easy to say it’s to cut down on neo-Nazi rhetoric or propaganda from the Islamic State. But where do radical Leftists and Libertarians who argue for the toppling of the State fall? How do we decide what counts as “humor” and what constitutes a real threat? (see: Kathy Griffin) If we’re seeking to destroy propaganda or misinformation, which debates remain open and which are closed? The Holocaust? Global warming?

It is never easy to walk the line between liberty and security. In today’s world, one which feels ever more dangerous, we in the West are hardpressed to choose between our way of life, and the lives of our fellow citizens. 

All arguments for liberty are “slippery slope” arguments, and as such I wish to avoid them. All I can hope is that we seriously consider whose interests are best met through regulation of our online speech.