Tim O’Reilly on why DRM on eBooks is a waste of time and effort

Clip from an intriguing Forbes.com interview with Tim O’Reilly.

Jon Bruner: On all your titles you've dropped digital-rights management (DRM), which limits file sharing and copying. Aren’t you worried about piracy?

Tim O’Reilly: No. And so what? Let’s say my goal is to sell 10,000 copies of something. And let’s say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome? I think having 100,000 in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits.

People who don’t pay you generally wouldn’t have paid you anyway. We’re delighted when people who can’t afford our books don’t pay us for them, if they go out and do something useful with that information.

I think having faith in that basic logic of the market is important. Besides, DRM interferes with the user experience. It makes it much harder to have people adopt your product.

The Asian economic ‘miracle’

Intellectual Property (IP) theft by China is a theme to which Mark Anderson often returns. But even by his standards this blog post is pretty explicit. Extracts:

Two weeks ago, I was visited by two people speaking for China, representing a new company whose job would be to – well, they described it, but it was a bit vague. During this description, we talked about IP and China, and they pointed to the new high-speed trains China is building everywhere.

Indeed, China has laid more high-speed rail, and plans for more of these showcase trains, than any other country in the world.

My visitors pointed to these trains as examples of how China was now developing its own IP, and not just depending on IP theft or forced disclosure from others.

Last week I learned the rest of the story: how Japan (Kawasaki Heavy Industries and others) brought this technology to China, hoping to make money, and now are watching as their IP reappears in Chinese products owned by Chinese companies, and the Japanese get little or nothing.

That’s the story of modern mercantilism, and of the so-called China Miracle.


Last quarter, a letter was reportedly sent from the Prime Minister’s office in the U.K., to the country’s top 300 CEOs, informing them that they should consider all of their current IP crown jewels to have been compromised.

All of them.

This brings the level of security concern to a level not yet anticipated by most executives: what if the cost of broachable security is your company’s future ability to compete and survive?

Ask Boeing, Cisco, Kawasaki, Qualcomm, 3Com, Sony, Google, General Electric, BASF, or Microsoft how they feel about all this. Most will dissemble in public, but tell you the truth offline; and many are rapidly coming clean, even in their public comments, as GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt did not long ago.

You are now CEO of a 50-year-old global corporation with, say, 60,000 employees. And the PM’s letter sits open on your desk.

You call in your CIO, close the door, show him the letter. Have we been hacked? you ask. He goes into geekspeak, describing various levels of difficulties, generally safe behavior, all seems well today, no guarantees or ways to tell.

What? You ask. There are no ways to tell if our crown jewels have been stolen by some competitor?

Here are some of the crown jewels obtained by China in the last couple of decades: the top U.S. nuclear warhead design, from Livermore Labs; wing fabrication machinery and blueprints, from Lockheed-Martin; selected Boeing airframe designs; navigation and rocket design for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (specifically, the Long March series), from both Boeing and Lockheed; high-speed router designs from Cisco; the source code to Windows, from Microsoft; complete car designs from Chevy and Ford; advanced chip and fab designs, from IBM; high-speed rail systems from Japan; etc.

And you think your company’s IP is somehow safe?

What we are watching, currently, is the largest theft in global history, happening in front of our own eyes. And while one group is busy exclaiming at the wonder of China (and South Korea and Japan) making all that progress and money in their turn, another group is now recognizing the mercantilist model in its third iteration.

I haven’t been able to find any independent corroboration of the alleged letter from David Cameron, but I haven’t had time to do much digging yet.

Copyright madness and Rooney’s goal

Last night I was so entranced by Wayne Rooney’s astonishing goal against Manchester City that I embedded a YouTube video clip of it (from a Dutch TV broadcast, judging by the commentary) in a blog post. Clearly, the goal had become a meme, spreading across the Web like that famous clip of Susan Boyle, the singer from nowhere who entranced TV viewers.

You can guess what’s happened to the Rooney clip, can’t you? (Check the post if you’re in any doubt.)

Quote of the Day

You know those state occasions when important people feel they must impose a minutes silence on everyone? Do they realize this is a copyright infringement of the first 60 seconds of John Cage’s 4’33”? I think this should be enforced, along with Happy Birthday, and other mickey mouse intellectual property.

Jon Crowcroft

Why e-books are a weight off my mind (and on my conscience)

Last Sunday’s Observer column.

When the history of e-reading technology comes to be written, an Irishman named Michael O'Leary will be assigned a small but significant role in the story. This is not because the chief executive of Ryanair has a secret life as a geek, but simply because he has perfected a system for squeezing his customers until their pips squeak. And therein lies the tale…

Google AdNonsense

Years ago, I signed up to Google’s AdSense program to see if it would be possible to reverse-engineer its logic. The results continue to amuse (but, alas, not to make money). I write quite a lot about intellectual property, generally from a standpoint that’s highly critical of the content industries. When I do that, Google invariably comes up with ads for firms that will help me protect my intellectual property — despite the Creative Commons licence at the foot of the page.

I’m in Provence at the moment, and now it’s even doing it in French. Sigh.

Library of Congress gets it right

The LoC is the official rulemaker on legal exceptions to the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which makes it a crime to circumvent DRM measures designed to protect intellectual property). It’s just issued some really good new rules — one of which loosens Apple’s iron grip on iPhones, while another permits non-commercial remixing of commercial video. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which pressed for the rule changes, reports it thus:

San Francisco – The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) won three critical exemptions to the DMCA anticircumvention provisions today, carving out new legal protections for consumers who modify their cell phones and artists who remix videos — people who, until now, could have been sued for their non-infringing or fair use activities.

“By granting all of EFF’s applications, the Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress have taken three important steps today to mitigate some of the harms caused by the DMCA,” said Jennifer Granick, EFF’s Civil Liberties Director. “We are thrilled to have helped free jailbreakers, unlockers and vidders from this law’s overbroad reach.”

The exemptions were granted as part of a statutorily prescribed rulemaking process, conducted every three years to mitigate the danger the DMCA poses to legitimate, non-infringing uses of copyrighted materials. The DMCA prohibits “circumventing” digital rights management (DRM) and “other technical protection measures” used to control access to copyrighted works. While the DMCA still chills competition, free speech, and fair use, today’s exemptions take unprecedented new strides towards protecting more consumers and artists from its extensive reach.

The first of EFF’s three successful requests clarifies the legality of cell phone “jailbreaking” — software modifications that liberate iPhones and other handsets to run applications from sources other than those approved by the phone maker. More than a million iPhone owners are said to have “jailbroken” their handsets in order to change wireless providers or use applications obtained from sources other than Apple’s own iTunes “App Store,” and many more have expressed a desire to do so. But the threat of DMCA liability had previously endangered these customers and alternate applications stores.

In its reasoning in favor of EFF’s jailbreaking exemption, the Copyright Office rejected Apple’s claim that copyright law prevents people from installing unapproved programs on iPhones: “When one jailbreaks a smartphone in order to make the operating system on that phone interoperable with an independently created application that has not been approved by the maker of the smartphone or the maker of its operating system, the modifications that are made purely for the purpose of such interoperability are fair uses.”

“Copyright law has long held that making programs interoperable is fair use,” confirmed Corynne McSherry, EFF’s Senior Staff Attorney. “It’s gratifying that the Copyright Office acknowledges this right and agrees that the anticircumvention laws should not interfere with interoperability.”

EFF also won a groundbreaking new protection for video remix artists currently thriving on Internet sites like YouTube. The new rule holds that amateur creators do not violate the DMCA when they use short excerpts from DVDs in order to create new, noncommercial works for purposes of criticism or comment if they believe that circumvention is necessary to fulfill that purpose. Hollywood has historically taken the view that “ripping” DVDs is always a violation of the DMCA, no matter the purpose.

“Noncommercial videos are a powerful art form online, and many use short clips from popular movies. Finally the creative people that make those videos won’t have to worry that they are breaking the law in the process, even though their works are clearly fair uses. That benefits everyone — from the artists themselves to those of us who enjoy watching the amazing works they create,” added McSherry.

So presumeably, the Downfall meme is safe.

The economics of peer review

My Open University colleague Martin Weller has done some interesting calculations of the cost of the academic peer-review process.

Peer-review is one of the great unseen tasks performed by academics. Most of us do some, for no particular reward, but out of a sense of duty towards the overall quality of research. It is probably a community norm also, as you become enculturated in the community of your discipline, there are a number of tasks you perform to achieve, and to demonstrate, this, a number of which are allied to publishing: Writing conference papers, writing journal articles, reviewing.

So it's something we all do, isn't really recognised and is often performed on the edges of time. It's not entirely altruistic though – it is a good way of staying in touch with your subject (like a sort of reading club), it helps with networking (though we have better ways of doing this now don't we?) and we also hope people will review our own work when the time comes. But generally it is performed for the good of the community (the Peer Review Survey 2009 states that the reason 90% reviewers gave for conducting peer review was "because they believe they are playing an active role in the community")

It’s a labour that is unaccounted for. The Peer Review Survey doesn’t give a cost estimate (as far as I can see), but we can do some back of the envelope calculations. It says there are 1.3 million peer-reviewed journals published every year, and the average (modal) time for review is 4 hours. Most articles are at least double-reviewed, so that gives us:

Time spent on peer review = 1,300,000 x 2 x 4 = 10.4 million hours

This doesn’t take into account editor’s time in compiling reviews or chasing them up, we’ll just stick with the ‘donated’ time of academics for now. In terms of cost, we'd need an average salary, which is difficult globally. I’ll take the average academic salary in the UK, which is probably a touch on the high side. The Times Higher gives this as £42,000 per annum, before tax, which equates to £20.19 per hour. So the cost with these figures is:

20.19 x 10,400,000 = £209,976,000

Martin points out the implication of this — that academics are donating over £200 million a year of their time to the peer review process. “This isn’t a large sum when set against things like the budget deficit”, he continues,

“but it’s not inconsiderable. And it’s fine if one views it as generating public good – this is what researchers need to do in order to conduct proper research. But an alternative view is that academics (and ultimately taxpayers) are subsidising the academic publishing to the tune of £200 million a year. That’s a lot of unpaid labour.

Now that efficiency and return on investment are the new drivers for research, the question should be asked whether this is the best way to ‘spend’ this money? I’d suggest that if we are continuing with peer review (and its efficacy is a separate argument), then the least we should expect is that the outputs of this tax-payer funded activity should be freely available to all.

And so, my small step in this was to reply to the requests for reviews stating that I have a policy of only reviewing for open access journals. I’m sure a lot of people do this as a matter of course, but it’s worth logging every blow in the revolution. If we all did it….”


Random House cedes some e-Rights to Styron family

From today’s NYTimes.

Because e-books were not explicitly mentioned in most author contracts until about 15 years ago, disputes have arisen about who has the right to publish digital versions of older books. But along with other publishers, Random House, which releases Styron’s works in print, has said that clauses like “in book form” give it exclusive rights to publish electronic editions. In a letter to literary agents in December, Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, the world’s largest publisher of trade books, said authors were “precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties” for electronic editions.

But in a statement last week Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said the company was continuing talks with many authors or their estates about publishing e-books of their older works. “The decision of the Styron estate is an exception to these discussions,” he said in an e-mail message. “Our understanding is that this is a unique family situation.”

Mr. Applebaum added that Random House had released e-book editions of two titles by Styron published after electronic rights clauses had been added to contracts. “We are hopeful future discussions with his family members will eventually result in additional e-book publications,” Mr. Applebaum said.

People in the publishing industry said Random House’s apparent acquiescence in the Styron case could lead to a flood of other authors or their estates moving e-books to separate digital publishers.