Thursday, February 12, 2009

Oh, I Wish I Were At TOC

If I could have been anywhere this week, it would have been attending the O'Reilly Tools of Change (TOC) conference in New York.

Second best option has been to follow coverage of the TOC conference online.

While reading about TOC, I discovered a link to an article posted on Ars Technica earlier this month titled "The Once and Future e-Book" by John Siracusa.

While Siracusa spent several pages venting his spleen (it was page three before he actually caught my attention), the article contains some excellent material on digital books (past and future), digital rights management (DRM) and the mistakes New York has made in confronting the same challenges already faced by the music and film industries.

His description, using Alice and Bob, to explain DRM rights is a convoluted mess. I would encourage you to read the original description given by Cory Doctorow in a speech to Microsoft back in June of 2004 here. Or, better yet, listen to the 45-minute speech (with a 15-minute Q&A) here.

If you don't have the time to do either, here's a quick summary. DRM is an elaborate form of cryptography, used for security purposes.

The essence of any encryption is that there is a message someone wishes to keep secret. Therefore, Alice (originator of the message) uses a cipher, an algorithm that will render the plain text unreadable without a key. She then sends the newly encrypted cypher-text to Bob with the intent of keeping anyone BUT Bob from reading her message. Bob, who has previously been given the key is able to decipher (de-cipher) the message. In order to obtain Alice's message, her enemy Eve must have the cipher, the cypher-text and the key.

Now we come to today and DRM. Instead of a third-party enemy like Eve, Bob is both the enemy and, as a consumer, the intended recipient of the message. Siracusa says: Bob "is the intended recipient of the 'message,' whether it be a song or a video or text. He must be given all the tools [cipher, cypher-text and key] required to decrypt and consume the information!" Can you see why DRM is likely to fail?

Bob pays for his "product." But if he wants to switch formats, make a copy of the film so his kids can watch it in their room, copy a song so he can listen to it in his car or download the e-book so he can read it on his phone, frequently he becomes a victim of DRM, which will not permit him to make perfectly legal copies. But, since he has all the parts of the encryption [cipher, cypher-text and key], he or a cyber-savvy friend will probably figure a way around the encryption. And, of course, he will feel perfectly entitled to do so since he paid for the product in the first place.

While we can understand Bob's frustration, he crosses the legality line when he sets out to circumvent DRM. Much worse, the next time he buys a product--remembering the aggravation Alice created for him--he may be more inclined to download the product for free online than go through all the hoops Alice put him through to use his own, paid-for product.

As someone who recently purchased a new computer, I can tell you EXACTLY how irritating it is to run into DRM when all you want is to access the copies you LEGALLY purchased.

I'd encourage all writers to read Siracusa's article because the issues he addresses are ones you will need to be thinking about and dealing with in future contracts.

Read the full article here.

I'll be talking more about this subject and other TOC issues this week.

1 comment:

Suzanne Axtell said...

Thanks for the kind words about TOC, Maya. I hope we'll see you there next year. We will be posting video of most of the session and tutorials over on if that helps: