Oh the irony...

After the great debates of last week, wherein I attempted to find a middle ground on DRM, I thought I'd let the topic lie for a bit.  For the most part because how ever much I learn no one but no one really has as much information at their finger tips as Cory Doctorow and Clay Shirky. They seriously know what they are talking about. Unfortunately when I came into the office this morning it was to see that DRM was once again in the news. When I wrote the piece I was perhaps slightly self consciously swimming against the tide. However all that is made a mockery of when something like this happens - faith in the system is, well, annihilated and the issues of trust that came up are starkly thrown into relief.

Apparently the problem was a rights one and somewhere down the line the wrong books got into the system in the wrong way. Everyone was re-imbursed and the books are widely available. Does this make any difference to the body blow of seeing 1984 automatically deleted from people's devices?

No, and I'm not sure what can be done in the wake of this.  Responses at Boing Boing and the Electronic Frontier Foundation elucidate the whole range of ways this is not a good thing.

Lets just say if this had come out last Monday, I don't think the blog posts on DRM would have got written.

Round 2: DRM Is Not Totally 100% Evil But Sometimes Gets Close...

Thanks to everyone for the comments and apologies for igniting the whole debate again. I thought I would collect all my responses together and put them out as a post. - My position: personally I think DRM is a pain and try and avoid it as much as possible. Professionally I recognise that as a publisher we are obligated in some instances to use it. Before everyone beats us up too much, can I just point out there aren't many publishers actually selling non-DRM ebooks and actively promoting them, or even embarking on a discussion like this. What I am saying is that I have a lot of sympathy and affinity with the anti-DRM position and strongly support open licences so am not droning out some unthinking policy.

- Andrew Savikas makes a good point when he says a pirated copy is not a lost sale. In a related point Cory Doctorow argues that the viral possibilities of a non-DRM means that it can have more blockbuster potential. I agree with both of these points. However just because a pirated copy does not necessarily equate to a lost sale, it does not mean that it doesn't all the time.

Margins are tight. On big titles agents will ensure advances are calibrated to the max. That means publishers have to hit very high sales targets to get any kind of return. A 5% loss of sales across big titles over a few years will greatly damage publishers ability to publish big books. So even if there are many new readers being added even a relatively low number of book buyers lost could cause a lot of damage. The thing publishers should learn is not to hit the panic button at the first whiff of piracy but to have a more considered response that doesn't alienate everyone involved.

As for Cory's point I think this is true for some works but not all works (as JEB points out). So I agree that having no DRM works exceptionally well for Little Brother (a brilliant book), as indeed it did for NIN and Radiohead. There have now been numerous instances of publishers giving a non-DRM file away, and this leading to a boost in print sales. My argument isn't with the effectiveness of this, but rather with a) there are some authors for whom this will not work as there audience isn't right and b) this isn't really a solid foundation from which is build a range of digital products. As a model I do think this will become more and more prevalent (all good) but also that it has the potential in the long term to undermine that which it currently supports.

- Regarding paper and DRM: I think this is a good metaphor for the expectations we have when we own a book. We expect a degree of control, but we don't expect to be able to do absolutely anything. Paper/digital isn't what it is about, rather I am saying that there should be some consistency across how we approach a book and freely acknowledge that present DRM is not doing this.

- A common argument here is that DRM doesn't work as it doesn't stop piracy therefore whats the point, lets get read of it. This is like saying the police neither deter nor solve all crimes so whats the point, lets get rid of them. Just because something is not absolutely effective, does not mean it is absolutely ineffective.

- Sean Cranbury calls my final comment "disingenuous". All I can say is that it was not written disingenuously at all. I am trying to strike a balance that favours readers compared to what exists now! This is about saying, well given that we are not in a position to scrap DRM for all our ebooks (technically impossible under existing arrangements) what can we be doing to improve things?

- To the many points about how DRM can make life difficult for ordinary readers, I agree and always have agreed. My reasoning for DRM not being 100% bad is that it can help mitigate risk. However we can all, I think, acknowledge that, bluntly, a lot of existing solutions suck. Cory Doctorow made many interesting points about the difficulties in creating a more humane DRM system to which I don't have an immediate answer. What I can say is that these should not stop us from trying even if it is hard, and I would be happy to get involved with standards bodies to fight for a better consumer experience re DRM. It might be challenging but we should give it a shot anyway - better to have tried and failed etc.

- Gary Gibson (a Pan Mac SF author whose non-DRM ebooks are available on the website) made a brilliant suggestion that some kind of digital escrow account is what we need. I could see this being run by an independent body like the IDPF or the BISG in concert with publishers. Such a project might offer a workaround to those objections that focus on the concentration of DRM in the hands of a few big players and the added cost burden DRM places on digital products by being a non-profit. This would also get round many of the difficult scenarios presented by Cory Doctorow. David Smith's point about a rental model being a good way of getting round this is exactly what I mean when I say we need to be open to new business models. A subscription/library style service could work for everyone.

I realise that saying something positive for DRM is not going to win me any friends (in public at least). Most of the objections to DRM are fair and publishing will no doubt follow a path similar to the record industry. Equally though blanket condemnation of DRM without an acknowledgment that it can play a role in maintaining the lifeblood of content industries is telling only one part of the story. I'm not saying the current IP framework is perfect, just that elements of it are important.

Given that the weight of industry opinion demands DRM for our files, isn't it better to try and make sure that DRM is as inclusive, flexible and consumer oriented as possible, instead of just going with the flow?

Many of the questions here seem to be about what the concept of "ownership" is in the digital age, and these are not fully resolved yet. I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers!

DRM Is Not Evil

At Pan Macmillan we are no great fans of DRM. For a while now we have been selling a limited range of titles DRM free from our website; these are titles where the authors have requested that we retail sans DRM. Many writers are in favour of this, and so we see as it as an important service. Recently we have added the novels of David Hewson to the non DRM stable and they can be found on the website. Lets face it. DRM can be a nightmare - confusing, fiddly, prohibitively sensitive to basic uses of media. A couple of weeks ago I was setting up a friends Sony Reader and forgot quite how dis-orientating an experience setting up an Adobe ID can be. Ok, so most of us used to the web will not struggle. But what about all those other readers who get by without Twitter and Adobe IDs? No doubt, DRM isn't perfect and makes life difficult for people legitimately using files they have paid good money for. Worse, it can lead to those files becoming unusable (a situation which is inexcusable).

However the anti-DRM lobby, as vocal as it is appealing, makes DRM sound like some cultural apocalypse. Culture, the argument goes, thrives on being shared and the modern mass media is a recent aberration that cuts against the grain of creativity and the natural flow of cultural production. Advocates like Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig make a case that is compelling, persuasive and important. Yet in the hands of many acolytes this is converted to a simple outright denunciation of any DRM and the assumption that the presence of DRM provides a moral carte blanche for piracy. Google might not be evil, but DRM sure is.

The whole DRM debate is hardly a new one but it's time someone in publishing said something positive for DRM. Yes, it often sucks, but it's not evil. Why?

Firstly because paper is a form of DRM. If you buy a book you can lend it out to a few of your friends. Can you send it to all of them? No. You are inherently limited in the spread of that book. We don't assume that it would ever be possible to distribute that book to everyone we know, only that we can do with it what we want. This is both sensible and sustainable.

Secondly and more significantly because mass culture relies on a mass business model undermined by piracy. An argument against DRM is that the web will engender a liberation and proliferation of culture free from the corporate bonds currently suffocating it; get rid of the suits and we end up in a grass roots web driven artistic utopia. This might be true. However in this scenario there will be no more Hollywood blockbusters, huge epoch defining albums and tours, door stopping bestsellers and all the other accouterments of mass culture that rely on a company infrastructure.

These require scale, a corporate scale, which requires direct and secure revenue which to date has existed in the form of unit sales. Last.fm, Spotify et al are pointing the way to a fantastic new business model, but alone it is not enough. DRM is one of the only tools available to prevent catastrophic loss of revenue.

My argument here is simple: if we want Harry Potter- the books, films, computer games, the whole phenomenon - then DRM has a role. While some of the web elite could happily do without this kind of mass market stuff, and while I believe the web is important in promoting material antithetical to it, I think most of us would not want to see it go away.

We all know that DRM is far from infallible and can be hacked. DRM is never going to be a final guarantor, rather it is a basic protective mechanism.

So DRM is not great, but neither is it evil. There are a few things that need to be done by publishers and others to ensure though that DRM really isn't evil. People do hate DRM. We have to make this better. My suggestions:

- interoperable DRM is a must. Seriously, until we have decent interoperable DRM then it will always be a huge and unnecessary barrier to adoption of new technologies. Getting this in place should be a priority for everyone in the content industries.

- more flexible DRM. I should be able to lend my file to people - just not torrent it at will.

- more choices and granularity of DRM available. As a publisher we don't always want to slap the heaviest DRM on all our titles. Yet this is what we have to do. Some titles could have lighter- or no- DRM while others have more restrictive controls.

- more social DRM. Watermarking and the like could be very effective, but as far as I am aware this technique is not yet widely used.

- an acknowledgment of the different uses and situations people might find themselves in. This means recognising that an inherent give in the system will make peoples experiences better.

- giving something back. If we are going to use DRM then we have to make sure that what we are offering really is great. This means harnessing digital delivery to add content and experiment with new forms of content to really make the offering attractive.

- be open to new business models. We cannot cling to just DRM; at the same time we should start earnestly evaluating other alternative means of distribution.

This might not make everyone turn round and start liking DRM, but it should make life easier for the most important people of all: our readers.

Tethered Reading

The recent noise about the iPhone highlights a trend recently discussed by Jonathan Zittrain in his book The Future of the Internet; namely how "generative" IT platforms are giving way to closed "tethered" appliances. The iPhone is such a device, in that it is ultimately policed by Apple and is capable of being controlled by them. Zittrain acknowledges the benefits of tethered appliances in an age when the internet is becoming increasingly dangerous but he raises a few spectres of what might result from a world dominated by tethered appliances, where the openness and flexibility engendered by neutral networks and development platforms, an openness that has lead to an unprecedented flowering of productivity and creativity, gives way to greater manufacturer control.

While the threats are many and various it occurred to me that there is an implication for publishing. Imagine you are reading a book on a tethered device like an iPhone or an Amazon Kindle. Both of these devices are connected to Apple and Amazon and are capable of being remotely updated. Imagine you have bought a book which is stored on the said device. Imagine the book is labeled libelous or in some way defamatory, inflammatory or otherwise in contravention of the law and is ordered to be removed from sale.

If you own the print copy then whilst the book can be stopped from selling anymore, you can still possess your own copy. The object still exists and stands as its own testimony and historical record.

On a tethered device that is not necessarily so; as Larry Lessig has noted "Code is law" and the book could be erased as the system operators, having that capacity, are legally coerced into doing so. This has implications not just in terms of ownership of digital materials but has a wider import in terms of how tethered appliances could shift the nature of discourse and alter our understanding of history.

While this is clearly an extreme and hypothetical situation, it's nonetheless something to think about.

"Creative Business in the Digital Era"

creative businessOn Monday I attended a fascinating day of talks and discussions hosted by the rather wonderful Open Rights Group looking at "Creative Business in the Digital Era". The Open Rights Group is dedicated to protecting and promoting digital rights at this precarious point in their history, when the struggle between closure and openness is still on. The premise of the day was simple. In the digital era information and hence media (and the creative industries) exist in a frictionless environment where data can be copied and disseminated with ease, moving outside the traditional revenue earning channels and fundamentally threatening the business models of publishers, record companies and film studios, amongst others, not to mention artists, retailers and all the other subsidiary industries dependent on the sector. How, in this situation, to make money?

Rather than going into detail about the proposed models- there is an excellent wiki explaining many of the ideas floated in depth- I will sketch an outline of the day and offer some thoughts on what was discussed.

Our host for the day was the affable and acutely knowledgeable Suw Charman, a director of ORG, who spoke about some of the models creative business might consider, the impact of social media and the difference between a product, a complement and a substitute. This was fascinating: companies produce products e.g. an MP3 player, which can be substituted, e.g. by another, rival, MP3 player, but a product also comes with complements, e.g. an MP3 player sock. The crucial economics here is that when the cost of a product falls demand for the complements increases.

So if MP3 players are going for a song demand for MP3 socks will skyrocket. The ramifications for the creative industries are clear: if your product is being consumed more, an increase in this case facilitated by internet piracy, demand for products and services around that product will increase and by getting involved with those complements the initial loss incurred can be made good. This is the thinking behind record companies eager to get in on merchandising and touring. Its quite difficult to apply the thinking to books in that books don't have obvious complements. In the discussion it was interesting to see that many other industries- from gaming to photography- had many monetisable complements while book complements were mainly intangibles. At any rate its a challenge for publishers and something we could do with thinking about. Over the course of the day we did some roleplay style workshops. The first was centred around the great Radiohead In Rainbows experiment (no longer running, alas), where small groups were assigned a role in the process and asked to work out a strategy around what amounted to the band giving away free albums. In the second exercise groups were given a product, my group was given a children's TV show, which we had to launch in the new media space. After half an hour of intense discussion we had come up with a killer strategy that would maximize audience engagement (having games and clips on Bebo and mobile, a second showing in Habbo Hotel etc) while attempting to safeguard DVD sales.

In the Radiohead game earlier in the day I was on a team faced with some difficult choices. We were the record company. Taking it back to before Radiohead left EMI rather than the current outfit, we decided that keeping bands on board in the digital era was paramount, and so decided to go all in the on the experiment, bringing our marketing and publicity apparatus to bear and improving the experience of a site which many found overly difficult. While acknowledging the risk we argued that without headline acts like Radiohead we would ultimately be in trouble.

Three case studies presented through the course of the afternoon. There was Tom Reynolds, ambulance medic and author of the blog Random Acts of Reality and its print complement, Blood, Sweat and Tea. Tom spoke about the positive experience of releasing his book under a Creative Commons license and discussed his varying experiences of blogging and publishing, advocating a position that writers and publishers had little to lose by using CC and much to gain, echoing Tim O'Reilly's comment that its obscurity not piracy that is dangerous.

Second up was John Buckman who runs a truly extraordinary online music store/record company called Magnatune, a company with more wildly experimental, seriously cool business models than I can remember or explain. Suffice to say it holds numerous lessons for more conventional retailers. Buckman takes a refreshing attitude to sales, never thinking in terms of possible sales lost, only in keeping revenue coming in. It gets over a target driven mentality being a kind of zen business that must take some balls.

Last up were David Bausola and Rob Myers, talking about the transmedia narrative they created in partnership with Ford last year, Where are the Joneses? Working from communications agency Imagination with TV production company Baby Cow they used web services, primarily Youtube and the blog but also Twitter, Facebook etc, they provided daily updates of a Europe wide search for twenty seven lost siblings. In an interesting blend of comedy TV and ARG they had a great success and pushed the boundaries of narrative, particularly TV narrative, on the web. To give a sense of the story, it all starts with a sperm donor...

Overall it was a great day and I left feeling full of confidence after hearing numerous brilliant ideas, many generated off the cuff in the informal discussions, of how artists and businesses can not only survive but really go forward in the digital era. As an industry we are often prone to introspective gloom about future prospects. With a little creativity, a little bravery and a lot of listening to people like the attendees of CBDE things might work out.

Photo: 17/08/06 Creative Space by Karsoe

Scraping Fiction

Following on from James' post about fan fiction, it seems that some of the issues are not just applicable to content as such, but also the wider concept of data. The idea behind scraping is simple: a program takes information from a web page and translates it to another webpage. It means that websites can, in theory, take data and then use it new ways. Popular scraping services like Dapper make the process easy and efficient, while a whole sub-industry as built up around translating information from one site to another, with tools such as this Ruby on Rails kit being widely available.

However as this feature points out the whole concept is increasingly problematic. Scraping essentially relies on the co-operation of the sites being scraped, and those tend to be the most popular: Google, eBay, Amazon etc. Most of the time sites are happy being scraped as it increases the profile of the site and the data they are displaying. Plus it can be difficult to stop.

As the article makes clear though, there are an increasing number of sites that are not willing to let their data be scraped. For example the listing site Craigslist has cracked down on sites that scraped their listings and repackaged them, as did Alexa, the Amazon owned web information service, which clamped down on sites using Alexa data.

There is an obvious parallel between fan fiction and scraping sites. Both are engaged with taking a proprietary piece of information and then converting this for a new and altered consumption that in some way augments or transforms the original information. There is, in both, a delicate balance between the risks of revenue and reputation damage (e.g. Warner Bros argument in the protracted Harry Potter Wars)/copyright theft and the massive benefits of visibility for the original owner or producer of the data. This is the critical faultline of the web. What is better: control or visibility?

In a perceptive post Tim O'Reilly draws an analogy between banks trading for their own accounts and websites that formerly directed traffic away from their sites to within their sites, trading for their own screen views rather than those of others. Here is a shift from, say, a visibility aid to producer of proprietary concept. It suggests a trend towards control even as DRM and fan fic lawsuits begin to look more and more anachronistic.

Perhaps the best way of balancing these competing demands is through Creative Commons licences: this ensures the integrity of the original work and revenue stream whilst also increasing the much needed visibility of the product or data. In the case of Craigslist for instance one of their major problems was with Google ads that were being displayed next to the scraped listings. If there were not ads on the original, they argued, why should someone profit from the data they had aggregated?

It makes sense though for Craigslist entries to be scraped as anything that increases views of those listings is by definition improving the listings; a CC licence obviates the issue of who is monetizing the content. Likewise the ugly spectacle of media companies hounding their fans could be eased in a similar way. Seeing as a data content distinction is fairly meaningless on the web some kind of creative commons could be built in to future works of HP magnitude, which would allow people to build on them assuming they acknowledged the source. Some kind of royalty arrangement could even be built in (if a fan fic became profitable or if a company was willing to take the risk).

Creative Commons come with the potential flexibility to allow alteration, a key sticking point in the debate over fan fiction.

A perfect illustration of this movement that skirts the transformative, free culture of the web, a need for visibility and the demands for greater proprietary content is the Google Knols project, at least as far as it is currently possible to tell. In the screen shot the Knol is released under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence. The content is thus hosted and displayed by Google, but is available for use elsewhere.

Scraping and fan fiction are raising new questions for viewer hungry websites and media producers, questions that require a new approach to concepts of ownership and data usage.

For fans of fan fiction

There's been some discussion on blogs recently about the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), which is a new "nonprofit organization established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms."

There is a post about the OTW on if:book:

Interestingly, the OTW defines itself — and by implication, fan culture in general — as a "predominately female community." The board of directors is made up of a distinguished and, diverging from fan culture norms, non-anonymous group of women academics spanning film studies, english, interaction design and law, and chaired by the bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik.

John Scalzi posts about the OTW on his Whatever blog, making some interesting points, and eliciting a fair few comments:

Among [the OTW's] many plans is “Establishing a legal defense project and forming alliances to defend fanworks from legal challenge,” which basically means that the OTW is planning to make the argument that fan writing is fair use under copyright. Or, as the organization states in its “Our Vision” statement: “We envision a future in which all fannish works are recognized as legal and transformative and are accepted as a legitimate creative activity.”

And another on Everybody's Libraries:

If you maintain a library, you might want to watch the sort of interaction going on here, even if you don’t particularly care about fanfic. Collection building and public service functions in the digital age often have to negotiate similar gray areas that aren’t neatly covered in law, but have important social aspects. It can be useful to look and see what sorts of practices build up owner and user communities, and what tears them down.

Reading these posts, and the OTW site, put me in mind of a (fairly) recent article in Wired about the fanfic equivalent of manga comics in Japan. Daniel Pink writes about the manga industry in Japan, and about how fan manga has found a place alongside manga publishers.

I spent two days at Super Comic City. But an American intellectual property lawyer probably would not have lasted more than 15minutes. After cruising just one or two aisles, he would have thudded to the floor in a dead faint. About 90 percent of the material for sale — how to put this — borrows liberally from existing works. Actually, let me be blunter: The copyright violations are flagrant, shameless, and widespread.

It seems that publishers accept this position, unofficially, of fans essentially violating intellectual property rights and making more or less money out of it, because experience has taught publishers that a vibrant and open fan fiction market supports sales of the copyright works rather than diminishing them.

Given the freedom to fill-in back story and plot loopholes, complete unfinished stories and extend characters, fans are bolstering the position of the publishers' manga as the 'original', the 'source'. Readers return, then, to the source and in so doing extend the lifespan of those publications; as it grows longer, the tail feeds the head.