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Digital Fanboy: Episode 2
Locking the Barn Door
Everything is Software, Copper-Top

Digital Fanboy is our exploration into digital media. How we use it, how it uses us, and how to get a better handle on everything. I hope that by breaking this down into small tastes I can help you understand what the present and future hold for us, just as I exorcise my own demons in this area. Come, take the red pill...

In Episode 1 we talked about the benefits and additional features we get from electronic media. The terms we hear and what they mean. This round we'll be looking into how digital media works, and fails - What DRM is and means and how it creates opportunity and complicates "ownership" of digital works. (If you're paying attention, there's a little Rebels V. Empire here that you can try at home, but you didn't hear that from me.)

When we last met, I closed with the following ominous paragraphs:

Your relationship with your cloud library is your personal login to the various digital comics stores. This should give you access to your purchases on an on-demand basis. But the comics downloaded to your device are basically locked-in there, you're dependent on that specific device to read them.

And the ugly truth is that without a connection to the cloud, at least every few days, your digital comics can turn into something dead. Not really yours to read no matter how much you've paid for them.

It wouldn't be fair to ignore that, so let's get to explaining how easily the rights to what you've paid for can evaporate.

Eating Digital Media

The most obvious commercial media you consume is music. Back in the 90's when everyone was waking up to the power of the Internet, file sharing proved just how much we loved to carry around music.

Typically this meant that individuals would use programs to rip music from CDs into computer files that could be played, and yes, duplicated an infinite number of times. Of course, giving commercial music away to your friends was 99.9% illegal, but music companies really had no way to prevent it. Very frustrating for them, watching all those uncollected profits scamper about the Internet.

So they tried to make examples of the few the caught to scare everyone out of pirating music. But that just made people hate music companies more than they did before. What to do?

The first part of the answer of course was software. The invention of Document Rights Management, or DRM for short, was a boon for music companies. DRM meant that the company could register your device(s) and license the playing of a musical work to that specific device. Software running on your device would check that you had a valid license before playing the music. You could give another person the music files, but that person's devices would not be license for it, and so it wouldn't play.

DRM has gone through a lot of interesting history, you might want to Google Sony Rootkit for example to learn to what lengths companies have gone to in trying to kill music piracy.

The upshot is that even though smart technical people, often taking on the role of media pirates, could actually strip the DRM from music, videos, games and books, the average person was locked into buying and dealing with restrictions put on them by rights management software.

And there were problems. If you had a device that could play music, but didn't understand the version of DRM that your collection used, the device was useless. Similarly if your computer or player had a problem, or a software or hardware bug corrupted your license, your paid for media simply would not play, and getting that fixed was a long and painful process for most.

Lulling You Into a Sense of Consumerism

The second part of the answer to companies controlling media was convenience. This was where Apple Computer basically took over the music industry, or at least the distribution part of it.

Starting with the iPod and in basically every device since, Apple has made purchasing music so easy and relatively cheap that it's usually not worth your time to go through all the effort of pirating it. People got lazy; they accepted the DRM even with the occasional problem.

Really, you can now avoid buying an album of questionable cuts and focus on the hits by buying them individually. And if you bought that CD from Amazon, you can stream that same music to your devices from their music service.

It's all because they feel comfortable with your inability to circumvent their DRM protection.

Of course DRM is not foolproof, and there's plenty of piracy going on, but we'll stop here for now.

As the Internet became faster and easier we turned to it for more and more media. Video, Books and Magazines were added to the list of things we could buy without heading off to the local brick and mortar store. Amazon came out with a tablet device that rationalized the idea of reading e-books.

The digital media lock provided by DRM gave content providers confidence that they could embrace this new distribution method fully, and increase profits while having near-zero material and manufacturing costs. So profitable for the companies, so convenient for us, it's no wonder we accept the restrictions with little struggle or questioning.

The Sheep Say Nay

There have been numerous complaints and protest against DRM. In responding to this many companies have, for lower-priced products, provided "DRM-Free" versions of their products. They may or may not actually be completely free of rights management encryption, depending on who you talk to and what specific title you're talking about.

The cost of DRM free content is typically a little higher than the DRM protected versions. Or the title may already be in the public domain.

I only mention this somewhat disingenuous nod to removing DRM because you might be thinking it's no longer a factor. But in this world of digital downloads of movies, music, books, and, of course, comics, the DRM protected product is working too well to be abandoned by content providers.

Which brings us to a huge problem with buying DRM content. Remember that the license for the content is designed to expire after a time. It needs to be renewed every now and then, typically by your device making an Internet connection to the content provider.

But what happens when that license can no longer be renewed? What happens if the company that provided you with the DRM encoded product is no longer there to issue you a new license?

It's already happening, and we'll discuss that and what you can do about it in the next episode.

And oh yeah, that's when we'll be talking about digital comics.

Let us know your thoughts on digital media and comics by writing to us on Facebook!

Ric Bretschneider

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