Digital Superstition and the DRM Mindset

A Halloween-Themed Essay in Support of the 2019 International Day Against DRM #IDAD #DayAgainstDRM

A Halloween-Themed Essay in Support of the 2019 International Day Against DRM #IDAD #DayAgainstDRM

The following essay was written by Leanpub co-founder Len Epp and reflects his personal views.

To fight DRM, we need to understand the mindset that drives people to propose, promote, build, and maintain systems that they would reject in any other form of technology.

I know it might seem strange to attribute real causal value to something as seemingly ineffable as a “mindset”. When it comes to high-level political and social analysis, these days we typically prioritize appeals to things like universal economic motivations, or the results of social science studies, and various presumptively natural or universal forces.

But ultimately, policy creation, and especially its enforcement, is made of people, and in addition to these more conventional ways of understanding our world, appealing to the common sense, everyday way we all think about how other people think, is a necessary condition for persuading them to change their minds.

A good name for the mindset that leads people to promote DRM, a mindset so common that we mostly don’t notice it, might be “digital superstition”: an instinctive sense of unease and suspicion regarding computing devices and displays, and often, even regarding the people who know how to build and use them.

The most important manifestation of digital superstition is the sense that computing and computing devices are not quite real. Although it’s not as popular as it used to be, it was always very telling that so many people referred, often pejoratively, to activities undertaken with computing devices and displays as being “virtual”.

To digitally superstitious people, this puts the computer in the position of the bogeyman: one thing that makes him scary and inhuman is that in a primordial way, you are unsure of his existence.

Crucially, representing computing as possessing only a “virtual” form of being lets people off the hook, ethically speaking, because they think of digital things as existing in some kind of alternative, shadowy, inhuman digital realm, and then propose and enact policies in relation to the technology, based on something approaching fear, and fear’s common consequence: fundamental misunderstanding of the object of that fear.

For example, most people would be horrified by a proposal that all the paper envelopes and cardboard packages we send, should be opened and inspected against records of ownership, in order to prevent the distribution through the mail of copied products, like books or music.

But digitally superstitious people see nothing to worry about, when it comes to proposals to do pretty much exactly that, as long as we’re talking about digital packages.

People who would balk at what it would really mean to set up a global theft-prevention infrastructure, by, say, forcing all cardboard box manufacturers to install certain technologies in their boxes, which would allow the contents to be recorded and assessed before they could be sent, support the exact same kind of regulatory nets when it comes to digital devices and products.

Indeed, sometimes you can even get a sense from DRM proponents that the idea of doing this kind of harm is thrilling, like the feeling you would get exacting revenge against a monstrous interloper, who in some fundamental sense you feel does not belong in the world at all.

Another manifestation of digital superstition is a kind of perverse fascination with things done online, which can lead otherwise sensible people to lose perspective on what they are doing, and fail to understand what we would really be required to build into our digital infrastructure, for them to get what they think they want.

Consider an article published recently in the New York Times by an author who spends his time hunting down websites where his books have been pirated, and has actually created an email folder called “Thieves”, where he says he has records of hundreds of such sites.

The author writes: “Some sites are so insanely bent on copyright piracy that they offer their followers wedding vows, in which the couple solemnly commits to support the copying culture.”

This comes across exactly like the genre of TV nightly news stories that spread rumours about scary stuff the teens are (actually not really) getting up to these days. It’s just not serious.

Here’s something I’m sure that in non-digital contexts, the author has a firm grasp of: if you go looking for people doing stuff you find weird and scary, you will find stuff a lot weirder and scarier than people copying some books to read.

More importantly, it is unbalanced to take something like this, and elevate it to a kind of representative-of-the-whole status; it’s digital superstition that gives people licence to engage in this kind of nonsense thinking.

That’s because when computers are involved, people who are digitally superstitious abandon their normal competence and realism, and train their captive gaze on the monsters they half see, and half invent.

To be clear, I don’t mean any of this in an insulting way. On the contrary, I’m trying to take seriously the hold that digital superstition can take, not only on people’s imaginations, but also on the feelings behind the policies they are driven to propose in the real world, based on their fears.

It’s important to remember that digital superstition is a real instinct some people have, and it has nothing to do with their capacities in areas where they feel safe and comfortable.

Specifically on the topic of ebooks and author earnings, and training people’s limited attention on the spectre of ebook pirates who are represented as hurting author earnings overall (which is the main justification some authors, and their usually well-meaning advocates, have for promoting DRM), it is important to understand just how much disinformation on these topics is knowingly and unknowingly spread by powerful people and institutions.

As a co-founder of an ebook writing and online bookselling platform where we are anti-DRM, I have some news for people who think it would be a good idea to make tech companies wrap not just ebook files, but the entire internet, in all kinds of restrictive practices, and profoundly anti-productive modes of enforcement, for the very specific purpose of protecting book authors from piracy: people pay all the time for books they can otherwise get for free.

To be clear, seeing your work copied and distributed for free, or worse yet, sold for money by pirates, is genuinely disheartening. But at least for me, so is the nightmare scenario of authors all around the world sitting alone in front of their computers, searching for themselves, and playing a futile game of emotional whackamole with the whole internet, when they could have spent that same time writing and promoting their books.

Take the example of a typical ebook in our online bookstore, which might have a minimum price of free, and a suggested price of $10. A Leanpub author earns $8 from every $10 sale. We actually show the “Author Earns” number to every customer, which is a big reason why people pay the price they do for books like that, that they could pay less for.

Even setting aside the presence of free download links being offered by piracy sites, anyone can buy a Leanpub ebook, and download a complete DRM-free copy of it to their device, and then return the purchase for a full refund, in about two minutes. Our return rate is about 1%.

That’s not just true for DRM-free books: anyone motivated to do so can buy a DRM-ed book from any online bookstore, take screenshots of all the pages, and return it, all in less than an hour. But very few people do that.

There is a deeper business issue here that is both a matter of technology, and convention, which shows how real innovation, rather than trying to reproduce the externalities of paper with DRM and unnecessarily high prices, can help authors earn more money, and reach more readers.

In our bookstore, we let authors set both a minimum and a suggested price for their books, and then we let readers pay what they want.

People not only routinely choose to pay for books they can get for free, they will also even “slide right” on our pricing sliders, and pay more than the suggested price.

We’ve had people get books for free or for the minimum price, and then contact us later to ask how they can pay more, if, after reading the book, they feel they underpaid for it.

As I’ve written before, we are not being precious or naive about this. It is a mistake — one that seems to be fading, thankfully — to think it’s realistic to assume the worst of everyone you interact with, and to base your business practices on that assumption, in retail or any other business.

One big reason people pay for Leanpub books that they can actually get for free, one way or another, has to do not only with the digital nature of ebooks in themselves, but also the fact that we don’t have to cover all the direct costs from applying some monstrous DRM architecture, built out of a kind of defensive fear, to our ebooks: we simply offer authors a high royalty rate, which is made possible largely by the inherent characteristics of good digital technology, and good commercial practice.

Nor do we suffer from the myriad indirect costs that would come from applying DRM to our ebooks, thereby treating 100% of our customers like they are potential thieves, and inhabiting the deeply counter-productive mindset that lets your perceived enemies steal your attention, and get a hold of your feelings, too.

Because we trust our readers, and we show them how much the author is going to get from the sale (this works precisely because ebooks have low reproduction and distribution costs), people often choose the price they want to pay based on the author’s earnings. It’s just a better form of engagement from both a business and a social policy perspective.

Which brings me to what might seem like an unusual point to make in this context: one of the worst forms of digital restriction, when it comes to ebooks (including textbooks), is the artificially high prices that conventional paper-product publishing companies put on their ebooks (and electronic journals).

We live in a world where people actually blame impoverished students and libraries for depressed sales of their cynically-priced digital products. As the blogger Nate Hoffelder recently put it, “I know that the legacy industry likes to tell itself comforting myths, but the idea that library ebooks affect ebook sales more so than high retail ebook prices requires a unique level of denial.”

After many years of confronting that level of denial in the book publishing industry, again and again, in so many forms, I’ve come to believe that the concept of digital superstition can help us understand a lot of the insanity we see in our industry.

Crucially, the main driver of this superstition is not the issue of tactility, which people who see themselves as defenders of books, are so wont to invoke, when confronted with the feeling of uncanniness that the idea of ebooks evokes in them.

Rather, the unconscious driver of digital superstition, I think, is that the work computers do is invisible. You can’t see any gears and figure out, just by looking at it, how a computing device translates your manipulation of it, into its output.

To some of us, this is magic; to those who understand how it works, it’s a matter of science and engineering; but to others, a computer feels like a cold and uncanny thing - like a ghost.

So, to combat DRM, one thing we can all do is drop the pretence that there is anything magical or half-real going on with digital stuff. There’s nothing virtual about a screen, or a chip, any more than there is anything virtual about a watch, or a windmill. In our world, computers are ordinary things now, and if we help people see that, they might see the harm they’re actually supporting, when they support DRM.

Finally, there’s nothing virtual about the impact of digital policies and practices on people’s lives: DRM (which often takes the form of a kind of surveillance), attacks on privacy, facial recognition towers, and many other bad things out there, all need to be faced with our minds clear about what we are really seeing.

The digitally superstitious proponents of monstrously unjust schemes like DRM, which are so often wildly out of proportion to the very interests they (often mistakenly) believe they are helping to protect, need to be reminded that computers, and their users, are very much part of the real world, just like an ordinary toaster, or a jackboot.

Len Epp

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Every year Leanpub supports the International Day Against DRM, because we are against DRM. This year, the #DayAgainstDRM was on Saturday, October 12.

This post was initially published in conjunction with The 2019 Day Against DRM Leanpub Ebook Sale, which was live through October 15. Please note the coupon links for the sale have expired.