Thursday, September 19, 2019

Digital Media Bait-and-Switch

Cory Doctorow's latest column targets DRM but touches upon the abusive business practices of digital marketing in general:

DRM Broke Its Promise

The philosophy behind restricted access to the media we "buy" begins with the premise, "The problem with markets is that selling things is inefficient. There are so many people who don’t need the thing, just a momentary use of the thing." So the promise of DRM was, "Thanks to a technology called 'Digital Rights Management,' sellers and buyers could negotiate a subset of rights and a reduced payment for same.. . .In other words, we were told that we must reject the promise of unfet­tered digital in favor of locked-down digital, and in return, we would enter a vibrant marketplace where sellers offered exactly the uses we needed, at a price that was reduced to reflect the fact that we were getting a limited product." As Doctorow sardonically summarizes, "In the futuristic digital realm, no one would own things, we would only license them, and thus be relieved of the terrible burden of ownership." The actual outcome: "We got the limited product, all right—just not the discount." For example, the DRM-protected books from publishers who use that technology cost no less than Tor's unrestricted e-books. The promise of "flexibility and bargains" gave way to the reality of "price-gouging and brittleness."

Doctorow discusses several limitations and abuses arising from the fact that we don't own the digital media products we thought we were purchasing. Without warning or recourse, customers can suddenly lose access to books, music, or video content (e.g., Microsoft's e-book store). Libraries pay more for e-books than print books and have restrictions on the number of times a book can be borrowed. Streaming services control how consumers can use the content they rent or "buy" (e.g., inability to skip commercials). College textbooks are a particularly egregious example. Electronic texts should be cheaper than hardcovers, but that's not necessarily so. Moreover, the login codes for mandatory online supplements have to be purchased afresh every year. Having finished my terminal degree well before e-textbooks, I had no idea of this catch before reading the article. I have a personal gripe with academic publishers (those that publish scholarly works rather than college textbooks): When they started producing electronic as well as print editions of their exorbitantly overpriced books—clearly marketed with libraries, not individual scholars, in mind—the e-book versions should have been cheaper. Much cheaper, within reach of individual would-be readers. Instead, they're typically priced only a few dollars lower than the hardcover editions. A $90 book discounted to $80, to pick a typical pair of figures at random, is still too expensive for the average unemployed or under-employed academic to justify buying. Granted, producing an e-book requires paid labor, just as a print book does. But in the case of an electronic edition of an existing print book, most of that work (editing, proofreading, etc.) has already been done. I often mentally rage, "Don't those people WANT anybody to read their books?" Some of us who would like to do so don't have access to a university library.

In an electronic media market where consumers have little or no choice but to spend "more for less," Doctorow summarizes the state of affairs thus: "DRM never delivered a world of flexible consumer choice, but it was never supposed to. Instead, twenty years on, DRM is revealed to be exactly what we feared: an oligarchic gambit to end property ownership for the people, who become tenants in the fields of greedy, confiscatory tech and media companies." Don't hold back, Mr. Doctorow; what do you REALLY think? :)

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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