Writer in Residence

If Not DRM, What Then? (Part II)

By Brian Panhuyzen

A few people, some of them writers, have written to me, wondering about the fuss surrounding DRM. They very much want their work protected from copying, and didn’t realize a kind of hysteria exists concerning DRM, much of it fuelled by Cory Doctorow, who began a crusade a decade ago when he addressed Microsoft regarding their DRM-strategies. You can read his presentation here. While there are many flaws in Doctorow’s arguments (most notably his attempt to apply historical copyright battles to the present day situation – because in the past copy protection was about inferior copies (e.g., player-piano scrolls vs. live musicians), while today's protection is about the thing itself being duplicated, i.e., a 100% perfect copy that is indistinguishable from the original), he makes some excellent points too, and the piece is worth reading. You might also look at the DRM.info, a hub to a bunch of other anti-DRM sites, a site that comes complete with dramatic barbed-wire imagery. One of the outcries of the anti-DRM crowd is that DRM limits what the user (reader/listener/watcher) can do with the properties they “own.” The heart of this problem is the mistaken idea that a book is a commodity that a consumer purchases outright. When you buy a book, you are not buying a tangible thing; you are buying an experience. Ultimately, the problem with intellectual property is the liberation of data that digital distribution has brought: the ability to make perfect copies. While intellectual property such as films, music, and books were once embedded in a physical object, their duplication required energy and cost, and the copy was invariably inferior to the original. This situation has led to the apparently inextricable link between the hardware and the software of intellectual property. "I own your novel." But you don’t own it, and you never did. When you purchased my book, you bought two things:

  1. the physical book – the paper, the binding, the ink;
  2. a indefinite license to experience my words.

The book is a physical construct necessary to represent those words in a way that allows you to exercise your right to experience them. You can sell or give the book to someone else, but in that way you are physically revoking your licence to my words, in that you can no longer experience them. For me as the creator of those words, this is okay – I was already paid once for one representation of my words, and though the license to experience those words has been transferred to another person, there still exists only the one copy, for which I have been compensated. In other words, where physical media is concerned, there has previously been a one-to-one relationship between the container and the contents. One set of film reels, one movie. One vinyl record, one album. One binding, one novel. (There exists a linguistic entanglement between the container and the contents, which increases challenges of distinction. Do you have my novel? Have you read my novel? I’ve written a novel. This is my novel. In these sentences I am using the term “novel” interchangeably – often opaquely – to refer to both the physical object (“novel”) and the dramatic story (“novel”). Film, movie, record, CD, album, book, photograph – all of these terms can mean either (or both) the physical media or the intellectual content. In the digital age, we have abandoned the container that helped limit unlawful distribution of the work it contained.) What’s missing from all of the anti-DRM rhetoric is an alternative – either technological or cultural – to DRM. The reality is that even the most law-abiding citizen, who would never steal an object, is content to make a digital copy without conscience. Whether this represents a failure of our education system or is simple justification (nothing is lost when something is copied, a book or song or movie, so no one is harmed – how many pirated songs in your music collection are ones you’d “never have bought”?) Another anti-DRM argument is that DRM “punishes consumers” with the associated inconveniences. I recall one reader complaining that she didn’t like the font her e-reader used, so she wanted the freedom to move the epub to her other e-reader (talk about first-world problems!). For hundreds of years the reader had no control over the font of the text, and now the reader is being “punished” by having to read a book in Palatino instead of Times. You know what’s inconvenient to readers – having to go to a bookstore to buy a book. Or having to order it online and be home when Canada Post arrives with the package, demanding a signature. Or having to put thousands of books into boxes whenever you move. Most consumers will never encounter the terrible burdens Doctorow and others describe when discussing DRM. There is a sense of digital entitlement in their position – because the digital age has brought freedom of information like the human race has never experienced, they expect everything they consume to exploit those freedoms fully, and if they don’t, it’s a conspiracy. You’ll note there are a lot of “why can’t I?” demands in their arguments. At the heart of these arguments is a distrust of corporate control. Don’t get me wrong – I think the American Supreme Court has done more to damage the life, culture, and ecosystem of our planet than any single body in history, and while corporations like Amazon use DRM to unfairly control the market, complete abandonment is not a useful position for artists or distributors. The discussion doesn’t end with, “just open it up and let everyone do whatever they want.” DRM is flawed. But this is a baby-and-bathwater argument, and let’s not throw out the former with the latter. The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.


Brian Panhuyzen is the author of the short-story collection The Death of The Moon (Cormorant, 1999) and a novel, The Sky Manifest (ECW, 2013). He has written for the Just for Laughs International Comedy Festival, worked as a typesetter and designer, and is a developer of databases. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.