Thursday, January 8, 2009

Money Down the Drain

As I'm sure a lot of you have heard, Overdrive, which provided secure DRMed e-books to Fictionwise, is shutting down on 30 January. Via a BoingBoing post, Fictionwise says:

We have control of our MultiFormat files and we have control of the Secure eReader format, so that gives us the ability to ensure we will continue to be able to deliver those formats to you. However, as noted above, other formats are delivered through third party aggregators. We do not have legal control of those third party servers. If those third party servers "go dark" for one reason or another, we have no way to continue delivering those files.

Wow, sorry about all your purchases. Not our fault.

This is why I don't buy DRMed e-books, or anything that has to "phone home" in order to be used. Whether it's every time you activate the product, or weekly or monthly or yearly, or even just when you install it on a new system, that kind of DRM scheme makes the product a rental, not a purchase.

Online activation means you're at the mercy of the company which really owns "your" product, whether it's an e-book, a computer game, a piece of digital music, or whatever. If they go out of business, if they're acquired by another company that doesn't want to maintain a hundred percent of their old (especially their really old) products, then that's it, your product is dead. Even if it only activates when you install, if you ever get a new computer or reader or whatever, that takes a new install, which might well require a new activation. Better hope that server is still up and being maintained.

And even the other formats aren't safe. Look again at what Fictionwise said above -- "We have control of our MultiFormat files and we have control of the Secure eReader format." They do, not you. It's great that they're maintaining them right now, but in the next five or ten or twenty years, there's just as much of a chance of Fictionwise itself closing down as there was of Overdrive vanishing. How many of you have books that are five or ten or twenty or more years old?

Oh, but Fictionwise is the industry leader in third-party e-book sales. They're solid, they're secure, there's no reason to worry about them.


I know I keep making this comparison, but the computer game industry has been down this path already, and is still hung up on these exact same roadblocks. Back in the day, there were plenty of computer game companies which were solid, popular, solvent, and at the top of the industry. Even non-gamers might recognize Broderbund and Microprose, just as a couple of examples. They're gone now. There's no such thing as an absolutely secure company, and anyone who likes keeping books essentially forever should think twice (and then a couple more times) before spending money on any e-books which require some company to spend money maintaining a server for online activation.

Shamus Young, whom I've quoted here before, goes through all the arguments about online activation in reference to computer games. Most of it applies to e-books, or music, or any product which has to touch base with an online server before you can use it.

According to Dear Author, Fictionwise is working with publishers to provide replacements for the books which are going to be expiring at the end of the month. And that's great, seriously. But it's not a final solution. Unless all those replacement books are completely free of online activation or validation, then they're just swapping out your bombs with short fuses for the same kind of bombs with longer fuses. They will blow eventually.

DRM is pointless on e-books. Pirates were spreading around bogus copies of books back when they were all paper and the pirates had to scan the pages to get a file to upload. Does anyone honestly think that, with pirates being willing to go to all that trouble to create a copyable, shareable version of a book, there's any kind of DRM which will stop them from copying e-books? The fact is that there's not. DRM penalizes the honest customers who've handed the publisher money, while doing nothing at all to stop or even inconvenience the actual pirates. It's ridiculous -- it's expensive for the publishers in both resources spent and customer ill-will, while bringing them nothing in return.

As an electronically published writer, I'd just as soon people not make a bazillion free copies of my own e-books. But more than that I want to not mess over and tick off the people who are handing me money. And as a reader, I'm certainly not going to spend money on a product the vendor can take away from me any time, whether because it goes out of business or because it just doesn't feel that maintaining Server 7B is cost-effective anymore.

[EDIT: Note the second comment by Steve Pendergrast, one of the owners of Fictionwise. I didn't know before (because I don't buy DRMed e-books of any kind) but am very happy to hear that Fictionwise's Secure eReader DRM never has to contact a validation server after the initial download. You can make copies and back up your file wherever you like. That sounds like a good way to go, if you can't get a completely unsecured version of a book you want. Credit to Fictionwise for coming up with one of the more transparent and non-obnoxious DRM systems.]



laughingwolf said...

no argument from me angie...

steve said...

Hi Angie,

I'm Steve Pendergrast, one of the owners of Fictionwise.

I would like to point out that if you download an eReader or Multiformat book from Fictionwise, there is no need for you to ever download it again, so you are fully protected as long as you keep backups of your files. eReader DRM, unlike any other DRM system, never requires you to download the book again even if you change your devices. We have people who downloaded books 10 years ago (literally 1998) who reported to us that the *very same file* they downloaded in 1998 worked on their iphone version of eReader. The same is true of multiformat files.

So, the consumer DOES have control of their eReader files. As long as they back them up, even if Fictionwise does go dark they can still be transferred to a new device and read just as always.

For this reason we urge customers to purchase either unencrypted Multiformat or Secure eReader formats.

Also, you didn't seem to want to give Fictionwise any credit in your blog posting for going out and negotiating replacement files for affected purchases. We are expending considerable effort in doing this. Your post implied that our attitude is "Sorry about that, not our fault".

That is not our attitude in the slightest and our actions back that up. We are going out and negotiating with dozens of publishers and tracking down hundreds of different files, and we have done considerable programming to make this happen. We have already provided replacements for 80% of the affected downloads. Fictionwise never takes a cavalier attitude about our customers and for you to characterize our company in that way is, in my opinion, not fair.

You are right to point out that other companies have "gone dark" and left customers with no way to transfer their purchases to future devices. This includes in their failed 2004/2005 ebook store, Gemstar, and many smaller companies. But I think you have to distinguish how those companies handled things vs. what Fictionwis is doing. Both by providing formats that never require redownload and by working to replace files from providers who go dark, Fictionwise is working to protect customers' investments in ebooks.

Take care,
Steve Pendergrast

spyscribbler said...

What I REALLY hate? Is companies who sell .pdf files, and then DON'T TELL YOU they're DRM'd. I hate that! You buy it, but then suddenly I can't transfer it to my Kindle!

I hate DRM. I'm banking on the Kindle, I know that, and I don't like that aspect. When I can, I try to buy DRM free pdf files. (Although Adobe was in a wee bit of trouble, last I heard.)

The people who are going to steal this stuff can crack DRM in a second. THe people who can't, aren't going to steal it! So stop treating your customers like thieves. It's irritating.

I bought it, and I want the freedom to put it on my Kindle, or read it on my computer, or print it out. And if they can't offer that, it needs to say so CLEARLY on every page, not hidden and buried in one small section of the FAQs (and often note even there).

Angie said...

Mr. Pendergrast -- I did mention that Fictionwise is working to get replacements for its customers books. About 2/3 of the way down, I said:

According to Dear Author, Fictionwise is working with publishers to provide replacements for the books which are going to be expiring at the end of the month. And that's great, seriously.

I meant that. I've known of a number of similar situations where the vendor or publisher said to their customers, essentially, "Your loss," and wandered away. So your company definitely deserves credit for making this effort to do right by the people who've given you money.

It's good to learn that your Secure eReader files are controlled through your own servers, and don't require reactivation after the initial install. (I get the MultiFormats myself -- I prefer plain PDF because of its bare-bones format and complete portability, so I don't have personal experience with the secured files.)

I agree that Fictionwise seems to be doing its best to serve its customers in an inherently untenable situation -- and one which is completely preventable, but I'm willing to buy that that's not Fictionwise's fault, absent evidence to the contrary. It still frustrates me, however, that the e-book industry as a whole is wasting resources and inconveniencing customers to no good purpose, in a vain attempt to secure the unsecurable. No actual pirate has ever been stopped, or even slowed down much, by DRM. These are the people who were willing to scan a page at a time to produce uploadable files of paper books, before e-books existed. You have to have a special kind of tunnel-vision to imagine that any kind of electronic DRM scheme is going to stop this kind of person from acquiring a copyable, distributable file. The only people affected at all by DRM are the honest customers -- and distributors such as Fictionwise, who are left holding the bag when some third party's server goes down.

I'm sure the Fictionwise servers are being pounded into the ground right now, as customers rush to download their books before the deadline. You're being hit, the customers are being forced to jump through hoops, all for nothing. It's ridiculous, and the industry as a whole is responsible for letting it go on this way, despite a number of clear examples from other industries showing that DRM doesn't work. My annoyance is with the general situation as much as the specific, I'm afraid.

As I said, though, I'm happy to hear that your Secure eReader DRM doesn't require online activation for re-installs. I'll edit my post to point that out.


Angie said...

SS -- that's another good point. [nod] If the file you're purchasing has significant limitations, you should be told before you've handed over your money.


Charles Gramlich said...

That is very unfortunate. All the ebooks I have so far are either text or adobe so I don't think I'll have any problems.

I've heard about similar situations in music downloads.

Angie said...

Charles -- mine too; I only buy plain, unsecured PDF files.

I'm not that into music, but my husband told me about the server that went down a few months back. Awful for the people who are into music and had huge collections from that vendor. :(


Travis Erwin said...

Hi Angie. Just wanted to stop in and say thanks from my family. Reading about writing is therapeutic and I hope that in a month or so I can wade back in myself.

Angie said...

Travis -- you're very welcome, hon. [hugz] I hope things are coming together for you and the family.


V said...

Wow. I had no idea that this type of e-book format even existed. You're right...anything that you have to dial in for is a rental, not owned. That would be scary, thinking that all of the material you love and enjoy could just disappear at any moment.

Technological advances don't always seem to be advances.

Angie said...

V -- they've been doing it for ages with computer games, and music, and it hasn't done a single thing to stop piracy in either of those industries either. :/ I just wish people had enough smarts to learn from the mistakes of others, because going through this over and over is getting annoying.