Digital traffic-cops.

Today I set out to download an ebook.  I was looking to get “The Shack” because I have heard much about it in recent months, and it is being harshly criticized by men and women I greatly respect, (while being lauded and praised by other men and women I greatly respect) and as a leader of college students I feel obligated to stay informed and on top of trends in pop-christianity, both good and bad. My motivation for purchasing the book is, however, not the point of this post.

I have an ebook reader on my phone that enables me to read books one handed.  It is fantastic.  I have used it to read one public domain book so far.  But that’s the problem.  Currently I can only legally download books that are public domain, as those are the only ones I can find that don’t have DRM (Digital Rights Management) encryption.  DRM is not a law, but rather a safegaurd put in place to enforce the law.  Currently the iPhone’s ebook reader is not able to read books without DRM.  So, I have the choice of obeying the law and not being able to download any current popular books, or illegally downloading those books that have been stripped of the DRM.  Nobody wins in either situation.  I break the law (or don’t read a book), the publishers don’t get paid, the writers don’t get paid, and our justice system completely fails. The only people that “win” are the criminals who get to read the book that I want.

If they had released it DRM-free, they risk losing control (what a figment of a concept) over who downloads the book.  They also lose the ability to enforce the “don’t steal” law.  But they would have made 10 bucks off of me today, and everyone else who finds themselves wanting to obey the law.  Criminals will always break the law.  No amount of legislation is going to stop them.  Guns were illegal on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16th, 2007.  Didn’t stop the criminal from having them.  Just stopped the folks who obey the law from having guns and being able to defend themselves.

I realize that downloading an ebook and taking a gun on a campus are vastly different subjects.  But the principle remains.  When we try to police immorality by making it illegal, we only end up hurting those of us who would have obeyed the law before it was policed so carefully.  And I think it’s safe to say there are more of us who would not steal than there are theives.  In fact, I think DRM makes otherwise honest people into theives.  People who already have a handheld device that will read ebooks, but no way of legally obtaining ebooks to read on it are far more tempted to break a law they would have otherwise readily obeyed.  The red tape is choking the free market, and causing the black market to thrive.

I’m sure folks are working to enable my iPhone to work with DRM-laden ebooks.  But that misses the point.  Imagine how far programmers and developers could go if we didn’t slow them down by making them add digital traffic-cops to every piece of software and hardware?

It would work far better to just have them include a paragraph at the beginning of every ebook that explains to people how not paying for what they are reading is stealing from honest people, and ultimately will destroy the whole system.

If you need me, I’ll be reading something by Shakespeare.  It’s public domain.