lipstickonapigSkrewtapeAdobe Digital Editions 1.5, on the way, uses more flexible DRM called Named Activation.

You’ll be able to tie your books to your personal ID, not suffer the usual machine-linked approach. The ML approach is torture if you own a whole bunch of e-book-capable machines—or when a hard drive goes south, as they’re all likely to do in time.

Perhaps with that in mind, eReader has been using an ID-based approach for eons by way of encrypted credit card-related information.

Oink! Oink!

Adobe’s plans are Good News even for us DRM haters, but they’re still just lipstick on a pig. Even Adobe concedes the “inconvenience” of “the user ID and activation processes” associated with Named Activation. And yet we know people want e-books on many devices, which eReader allows, via its credit-card-linked approach. Will Adobe Digital Editions, too, rely on card-linked IDs? My hunch is no. What I can say, however, is that I still hear LOUD oinks.

As I’ll show later in this post, even Adobe’s new DRM (as in “New Nixon”?) could be a long way from “iPod simple” if you include the registration process.

Two positives…

Meanwhile here are two positives:

1. Adobe Digital Editions can automatically convert already-bought, machine-tied books—Easy Activation books, that is—to the human-tied Named Activation.

2. If Digital Editions makes it as expected to the Sony Reader, then perhaps you can use portability of the DRM to be able to read the same books on your other machines—ideally in the IDPF’s .epub standard, toward which Adobe made many valuable contributions.

…but a pig’s still a pig

Even so, the lipstick won’t squelch the oinks or cover up the snout or stench. I wonder what device limits if any might exist. An Adobe FAQ mentions up to six desktop machines and six PDAs (numbers applicable to Digital Editions?), but as reading devices proliferate, even that might not be enough. I’d hope that DE 1.5 wouldn’t have a limit.

While I appreciate Adobe’s new flexibility, as long as it’s making us register, why can’t we use the social DRM approach that Adobe’s Bill McCoy so wisely talked up some months ago? Much better would be no DRM. But at least the social DRM approach would let you read your purchased e-books forever. So how come Adobe hasn’t provided shoppers with that option in cases where publishers would allow allow it?

No, Adobe isn’t going to vanish tomorrow, but even the largest corporations tend as a rule to fade away eventually, and I want my books to be outlast both the company and me. Permanence—isn’t that one of the ways in which cardboard-and-ink books differ from most other media? Why can’t e-book catch up, at least a little, in that regard? And speaking of DRM and “forever,” is there a grandchild provision? Is Adobe providing for ways to bequeath personal libraries?

Too Rube Goldbergish even for Adobe

As much as I’m an e-book-lover, I remain an e-skeptic. DRM is no small reason why.

Technology keeps changing, and as hard as Adobe may commendably try to simply matters, DRM makes e-books horridly Rube Goldbergish. Just show this page from Fictionwise—an innocent bystander—to your techophobe friend.

On top of that, when I Googled up an Adobe activator site for recent information, the “Sign up for an Adobe ID” feature wasn’t working. At least on my Firefox brower, the “select a country feature” didn’t function when I was checking out the latest wrinkles of the registration process. A new URL? If that’s the problem, then we have one more illustration of an inherent flaw of DRM—the fact you need stability for it to work, the very antithesis of what technology is all about.

My experience with the activation site, current or discarded, is not good news either for Adobe or e-books as a whole.

Imagine, too, how I feel when I see statements such as, “If you are contemplating buying a new machine, please consider keeping your old machine intact unless you bought all of your books with Acrobat or Reader using Named Activation.” Even if your disk crashed?

Perhaps this is yet another lesson in the follies of relying too heavily on the vagaries of bits and bytes.

And maybe others have learned it better than Adobe. If DRM’s so great, why is it that Apple, the very company whose audio players supposed are “iPod-simple,” wants to move away from the technology?

Dialogue sought

Far from being an Adobe hater, I hope the company will regard this as constructive criticism and go on to simplify the activation process if it insists on DRM—and experiment with social DRM, which at least would make books permanently readable without any gotchas. Hey, Bill. You were on to something good in talking up social DRM. Follow up with some action, both at Adobe and within the IDPF! I’d welcome responses from Bill, DE’s Peter Sorotokin or others at Adobe. Just why can’t Adobe give social DRM a shot, in line with Bill’s suggestion?

Detail: Social DRM, as far as I’m concerned, could work with or without registration. Even the supplying of a mere e-mail address would remind people that this was copyrighted material. No utopias expected. Via the right business models and systematic efforts to build communities around books, publishers can help keep honest people honest.

Related: A different perspective from Alex at MobileRead.

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  1. David,

    Thank you for this post. Frank discussion of the DRM is very important. In the end everyone benefits when the middle ground is reached – this is especially true for DRM where this middle ground is especially hard to find.

    First, let me state what the DRM is for, as I see it. The primary goal of the DRM technology is to make the content available. The more content we can make available, the better our DRM is. “Social DRM” has its place, but is it the best way to make as much as possible content available? I don’t think so.

    One good example of DRM use is libraries. Libraries in many cases are responsible to make sure that the content that they lend is not used by more than certain number of people and not used after it expires.

    You write “if [Adobe] insists on DRM” – Adobe actually does not insist on DRM. We do not ask publishers to use DRM, it’s the other way around. Yet we have to listen to publishers, since they provide the content. There is nothing that prevents publishers either from not using DRM at all or using some sort of social DRM. We certainly can facilitate that by experimenting with new approaches and we will, but our first priority must be to make sure that people who are ready to buy books today (or use an eLibrary) can stop worrying about their ability to read them and people who are ready to sell or lend them have happy customers.

    Regarding the number of activations – we cannot simply make it unlimited. If we could, we would, as that would be much simpler for us. Remember that how DRM works, especially for existing content, is not just up to us to decide.

  2. Many thanks, Peter, for taking my suggestions in the right spirit. Is there any possibility that Adobe could make a real push to encourage publishers to experiment with social DRM—Bill McCoy’s excellent idea, which I regard as a viable compromise? Tell me what’s needed for this to happen at Adobe. Who at Adobe can authorize experimentation with such an approach? Can Bill himself? Tell me how I can help the social DRM cause, and, in a realistic way, without promising miracles, I’ll keep talking it up here and in my Publishers Weekly blog. I know you say that “social DRM has its place”; and that’s a start even if you currently see it as far from a universal solution. Can’t SDRM at least be an option? This would be a chance for Adobe to take the initiative and be a leader in an exciting new area. The results might surprise you, in a positive way. You could provide publishers with the tools for embedding appropriate text and, if they preferred, watermarks—something similar to what iTune is doing to augment SDRM. You could also provide related consulting services and combine SDRM with interactive features (e.g,, shared annotations), which, by building community ties, would reduce piracy.

    As for libraries, they actually might be one market where you could try SDRM. The idea is to discourage patrons from sharing books with the rest of the world. If need be, to allow for the risks and a reduced market for revenue from other means, publishers could charge libraries more for e-books with SDRM than for books with encryption. Patrons might have quotas on SDRM checkouts. Besides, the average library patron lacks the skills to remove SDRM-related text or hidden watermarks. He/she doesn’t want to lose library privileges. Oh, and along the way, you might reduce support costs and make Adobe books more attractive for libraries to use. Think of the .epub push. It took years for Adobe to advocate a reflowable format, but as you can see, much good has happened. Same concept applies here for SDRM. Bill needs t olisten to the inner Bill and, Adobe permitting, act out his gut instincts just as he did with .epub.

    I also wonder—and I know this is heresy—about some bold libraries experimenting carefully with ad-supported books, from which revenue would go to publishers. This would mean a business model somewhat like Wowio’s. I can also see certain book-sellers, too, by the way, using a mix of traditional and ad-supported models. Not all libraries and bookstores would plunge into it, but I suspect enough would to justify SDRM experiments.

    Back to Wowio. Keep in mind that its Adobe-format, SDRMed content is legally available only in the States, probably due to agreements with oversea publishers. So even in Wowio’s case, despite a business model relying on maximum domestic exposure of e-books, harm could result from leakage. And yet Wowio’s fine experiment goes on.

    Correctly you broach the issue of publishers’ consent, in terms of maximum content being available. But Wowio certainly has gotten some outstanding houses–big and small–to participate in its program. Adobe could, too, especially since many small publishers view traditional DRM as a threat to their revenue because the technology makes e-books harder to use. You don’t have to start with Random House and the other giants, although I hope that they, too, will experiment with SDRM, at least for nonbestsellers—-in both library and retail markets.

    Get some sincere, heartfelt efforts going with SDRM and I can guarantee you I’ll sing praises of the experiment, not just here but also in my Publishers Weekly blog. I’ll even see if I can’t get your pioneering work written up in the print version of PW (no promises–this is for others to decide!). Some for other e-book-related companies undertaking SDRM initiatives. No favoritism here.

    For the good of the book industry, I want to do everything I can to talk up Bill’s excellent idea (actually a larger-scale version of the approach of Pragmatic Programmers). If I had my druthers, even SDRM wouldn’t be used, but it is indeed rather promising as compromise. Once again: the results just might startle you on the upside! The real risk is in NOT experimenting. As opposed as I am to the complexities of traditional DRM, whether from Adobe or Mobi or anyone else, I’ll be solidly supportive of an Adobe SDRM initiative.

    Thanks again, Peter!


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