(Non) Portable Entertainment

Highly Portable Detector Some entertainment should be portable.

Like books.

I strongly believe that the ebook market is going to follow a similar trajectory to the digital music market, over approximately the same time period. We’re already seeing this, with Amazon trying to play the role that Apple did with iTunes and the iPod. I think that, for similar reasons, it’ll probably shake out the same way. Kindles will end up being able to read ePub, other people will be able to read Kindle-formatted books on thier nooks or Sony Readers or whathaveyou.

But that’s not the way things are now, and it’s kind of frustrating.

I spent a good part of Sunday formatting an ebook collection of my flash fiction. One of the annoyances was making sure that I created versions that could work with both Kindles and other eReaders. (Anyone remember having to code different versions of you websites for Netscape and IE?) And a bigger annoyance, now that I have an Sony Reader of my own 1 is portability.

When I started programming, I had this flash of insight:

Programming is all about taking one source of data, possibly transforming it, and outputting it in another format.

That insight has informed a lot of my opinions about portability – that is, the ability to take entertainment I digitally own (either free or purchased) and enjoy it on the digital platform of my choice. Especially when you’re talking about text.

I’m not talking about derivative works (just because you bought the book doesn’t mean you get the audiobook or movie adaptation for free), or even significant changes in media (specifically – paper books don’t give you an automatic "right" to a digital version). But it does make sense that I should be able to convert an e-book I legally own from ePub to Kindle to PDF to text and back again. 2

There’s software to do that – but not if your book is locked with DRM. And that’s the way the "big stores" sell them. That does not stop pirates – it doesn’t take much searching to find programs to crack DRM – but DRM will either stop (and tick off) your legitimate consumers, or teach them that breaking the law is an okay thing to do.3 I just bought a PDF that got waterstamped with my e-mail address and purchase number – but with a few programs and some elbow grease, I can make all of that go away. In the meantime, I’m annoyed that reading the PDF on my eReader is going to be problematic at best.

I’m not saying piracy is okay. Piracy ends up hurting content creators – you know, those authors you care enough about to want to read their work. I am saying that portability is okay – it’s changed (and expanded) the ways we listen to music – and that portability is being hurt by DRM that doesn’t actually do what it’s supposed to.

I said last week that DRM is a farce – and this is why. When are businesses going to stop paying for a "service" that their customers actively don’t want?

1 The Sony Pocket Reader, based on the recommendation of Charles Stross. It does exactly what he says it does – and actually fits in my cargo pockets, which was a key need of mine. And it was on Woot! for significantly cheaper than list price.
2 Yes, I realize I’d lose all the formatting. That’s not my point.
3 Originally written before the Library of Congress decision and the 5th Circuit Court decision. You should probably read Engadget’s breakdown on what those decisions mean – and don’t mean.