As some of you might have heard, Overdrive, which provided secure DRMed e-books to Fictionwise, is shutting down on 30 January. Via a BoingBoing post, Fictionwise says:
We have control of our MultiFormat files and we have control of the Secure eReader format, so that gives us the ability to ensure we will continue to be able to deliver those formats to you. However, as noted above, other formats are delivered through third party aggregators. We do not have legal control of those third party servers. If those third party servers "go dark" for one reason or another, we have no way to continue delivering those files.
Wow, sorry about all your purchases. Not our fault.
This is why I don't buy DRMed e-books, or anything that has to "phone home" in order to be used. Whether it's every time you activate the product, or weekly or monthly or yearly, or even just when you install it on a new system, that kind of DRM scheme makes the product a rental, not a purchase.
Online activation means you're at the mercy of the company which really owns "your" product, whether it's an e-book, a computer game, a piece of digital music, or whatever. If they go out of business, if they're acquired by another company that doesn't want to maintain a hundred percent of their old (especially their really old) products, then that's it, your product is dead. Even if it only activates when you install, if you ever get a new computer or reader or whatever, that takes a new install, which might well require a new activation. Better hope that server is still up and being maintained.
And even the other formats aren't safe. Look again at what Fictionwise said above -- "We have control of our MultiFormat files and we have control of the Secure eReader format." They do, not you. It's great that they're maintaining them right now, but in the next five or ten or twenty years, there's just as much of a chance of Fictionwise itself closing down as there was of Overdrive vanishing. How many of you have books that are five or ten or twenty or more years old?
Oh, but Fictionwise is the industry leader in third-party e-book sales. They're solid, they're secure, there's no reason to worry about them.
The computer game industry has been down this path already, and is still hung up on these exact same roadblocks. Back in the day, there were plenty of computer game companies which were solid, popular, solvent, and at the top of the industry. Even non-gamers might recognize Broderbund and Microprose, just as a couple of examples. They're gone now. There's no such thing as an absolutely secure company, and anyone who likes keeping books essentially forever should think twice (and then a couple more times) before spending money on any e-books which require some company to spend money maintaining a server for online activation.
Shamus Young, whom I've quoted here before, goes through all the arguments about online activation in reference to computer games. Most of it applies to e-books, or music, or any product which has to touch base with an online server before you can use it.
According to Dear Author, Fictionwise is working with publishers to provide replacements for the books which are going to be expiring at the end of the month. And that's great, seriously. But it's not a final solution. Unless all those replacement books are completely free of online activation or validation, then they're just swapping out your bombs with short fuses for the same kind of bombs with longer fuses. They will blow eventually.
DRM is pointless on e-books. Pirates were spreading around bogus copies of books back when they were all paper and the pirates had to scan the pages to get a file to upload. Does anyone honestly think that, with pirates being willing to go to all that trouble to create a copyable, shareable version of a book, there's any kind of DRM which will stop them from copying e-books? The fact is that there's not. DRM penalizes the honest customers who've handed the publisher money, while doing nothing at all to stop or even inconvenience the actual pirates. It's ridiculous -- it's expensive for the publishers in both resources spent and customer ill-will, while bringing them nothing in return.
As an electronically published writer, I'd just as soon people not make a bazillion free copies of my own e-books. But more than that I want to not mess over and tick off the people who are handing me money. And as a reader, I'm certainly not going to spend money on a product the vendor can take away from me any time, whether because it goes out of business or because it just doesn't feel that maintaining Server 7B is cost-effective anymore.
[EDIT: Steve Pendergrast, one of the owners of Fictionwise, commented on my off-LJ blog about this issue. I didn't know before (because I don't buy DRMed e-books of any kind) but am very happy to hear that Fictionwise's Secure eReader DRM never has to contact a validation server after the initial download. You can make copies and back up your file wherever you like. That sounds like a good way to go, if you can't get a completely unsecured version of a book you want. Credit to Fictionwise for coming up with one of the more transparent and non-obnoxious DRM systems.]