Copy Protection: Just Say No

Although technically excellent, Microsoft's electronic- book reader enforces some highly dubious restrictions on book buyers, including a kludgy setup procedure. All told, this product has been seduced by the Dark Side.

Longtime Computerworld readers will know I have been an enthusiastic supporter of Microsoft Corp.'s electronic-book projects, including its ClearType font-rendering technology and Microsoft Reader software on the Pocket PC. Recently, Microsoft released Reader for the PC platform, and for the first time I learned the details of the company's copy-protection policy. ClearType's technological brilliance has been overshadowed by an irrational and unprecedented set of restrictions whose fairness is highly questionable.

After a simple 8MB download, nothing else is straightforward. After the setup finishes, you have to "activate" the program before you can purchase electronic books. The instructions say it's a "simple, one-click process that only needs to be done once for each PC." Well, to use the program, you need an account with Microsoft Passport, so I created one. In five minutes, I was back to Reader Activation, and I made that single click.

This brought up what looked like a Reader page but was really a browser window, and then downloaded a "Secure Repository" and an encrypted Activation Certificate that "certifies your copy of Microsoft Reader as being enabled for viewing protected content."

Microsoft then loads information about your system, including a computer hardware identification code. Microsoft says this "respects the privacy of information about your computer hardware" while still giving "access to many premium eBook titles that have been copy protected."

That seemed to be innocent enough. Then I saw this question: "How many computers can I activate Reader on?" Just two, it turns out; if you want more than that, you need additional Passport accounts. Now, with the gloves off, the iron fist is exposed: "However, if you purchase an eBook on a computer where you activated the Reader with your first Passport, you won't be able to read that title on a computer where the Reader was activated using your second Passport."

While this sort of limitation has technically been a part of end-user license agreements for years, it has been infeasible and politically difficult to enforce such constraints.

Now the limit can indeed be enforced technologically, and the restrictions are far more stringent. They don't even pass the commonsense test. This is exactly as if I had to register my CD players at the music store and, thereafter, I could play my discs on only those two players.

What happens when Computerworld replaces my laptop or I buy a new computer or replace a hard drive, and I can't read the books I paid for?

I visited http://ebooks.barnes andnoble.com/ms_reader to see how electronic books were priced. I compared prices for paperback, hardcover and electronic editions, and it became clear that electronic books won't save readers money. One book advertised there, Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc., 1999), is cheaper in print ($10.50, paperback) than as an electronic download ($15 for Microsoft Reader, $12 or $22 in other electronic-book formats). In fact, the $22 hardcover edition is no more expensive than some electronic formats, though obviously it costs the publisher far more to produce and the seller more to handle. Granted, you don't pay shipping on a download, but how often do you order just one book when there's a shipping charge?

Recently, I was at a dinner party that included Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, which supports the proposition that software - and by extension, many other forms of intellectual property - should be free. Stallman said he was disturbed by Microsoft's electronic-book initiative and its copy protection. I didn't like his argument and defended the software on its technical merits.

Now, with more data, I see that Stallman's concerns were right on the money. In my judgment, based on Microsoft's own explanation of its restrictions, this copy-protection scheme is conceptually flawed and will, in fact, put far more contraints on one who buys an electronic book than someone who buys the same title in print. That's crazy, which may be why publishers are rushing to jump on the copy-protection bandwagon.

During the early days of PCs, copy protection enjoyed a brief prominence, but it eventually failed; the market wouldn't stand for it. Back then, most software products were tools - a means to an end (e.g., a word processor or spreadsheet) - not the users' end products. Books are different; they are the end product.

A Cautionary Tale

Alexx Kay, a PC game designer (and yes, my son), says he has seen copy protection return to his industry with a vengeance. Most game manufacturers now use some form of copy protection. This creates all the classic problems we recall from the 1980s: It annoys most users, and it prevents many users with nonstandard equipment from using a legitimately purchased copy. Worst of all, copy protection doesn't slow piracy.

PC gamers don't want copy protection, just as book owners and libraries don't. Alexx notes that many game developers also don't want it, but publishers universally insist on it.

This could happen in book (and newspaper and magazine) publishing too, and that's a dismal, frightening prospect. I sincerely hope that Microsoft and its publishing partners don't make us travel down that copy-protection road and pay their stiff tolls. For now, I would rather hitchhike.

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