In the small southern Vermont town where I live, my morning walks take me down roads and past buildings that have been around since the 18th century (including Ice Pond Farm, a farmstead built in 1792). A recent walk had me reflecting on the nature of trust in business, the thoughts triggered by an open-air, unattended egg stand in front of a shop being renovated. In several of the circular bins, fresh eggs are laid out in straw. In another bin, there’s a piggy bank awaiting your payment—25c per egg. It would be easy for someone to walk off with the piggy bank or scoop up all the eggs and disappear. As far as I know, that’s never happened.
A bit further down the road, you can buy honey that comes from hives right across the street from where the stand is or maple syrup made locally. It’s the same kind of deal. You walk up onto the screened-in porch, pick up a jar of honey or syrup, and leave your money on the table. Sales transaction completed.
It’s a business relationship built purely on trust. If only such an attitude of trust existed in the digital media world. When you buy an ebook, many publishers automatically assume you’re likely to steal their intellectual property and apply DRM (digital rights management) to make sure that you don’t. It’s a foolish endeavor from the start, since copy protection schemes are typically broken within two or three days from whenever a new scheme is initially released. DRM, however, demonstrates forcefully that the publisher believes you may have larcenous intent—to a degree that they are willing to add clumsy and limiting restraints on the book you have purchased, often preventing you from using it on different devices or even giving the book away to someone else. It’s a complete lack of trust.
From onerous copy protection schemes on CDs and DVDs to the near ubiquitous DRM applied to most ebooks to the emerging Encrypted Media Extensions DRM-in-HTML standard, everyone seems to think it’s a legitimate way to protect digital media from being stolen and endlessly replicated by nefarious individuals in lawless countries on the fringes of the civilized planet.
Well, almost everybody thinks that. The Electronic Frontier Foundation doesn’t:
At EFF, we disagree. We’ve had over a decade of watching this ratchet at work, and we know where it can lead. Technologists implement DRM with great reticence, because they can see it’s not a meaningful solution to anything but rather a font of endless problems. It doesn’t prevent infringement, which continues regardless. Instead, it reduces the security of our devices, reduces user trust, makes finding and reporting of bugs legally risky, eliminates fair use rights, undermines competition, promotes secrecy, and circumvents open standards.
The chipping away at the open web is also being advanced by some factions in the ebook industry, who are pushing for a W3C standard to lock up formatted text, possibly leading to paywall sites, as Cory Doctorow suggests in this Guardian article.
There are endless permutations of the arguments around DRM and copy protection, and in the end they all seem to fall to one basic principle.
Trust your customer.