The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 176 | The comiXology server crash reminds us why DRM is more trouble than it’s worth

Leaving Proof 176 | The comiXology server crash reminds us why DRM is more trouble than it’s worth
Published on Wednesday, March 13, 2013 by
What can the leader in digital comics distribution learn from its peers in the video game, e-book, and digital music sectors? When it comes to the pitfalls and drawbacks of aggressive digital rights management (DRM), a lot, as it turns out.

Marvel Comics and digital comics distributor comiXology were set to make a number of big announcements over the weekend at Austin’s SXSW festival, including a bombshell of a joint promotion by the two companies, one that would see Marvel release 700 digital comics on the comiXology service for free, for a limited time. The story grabbed virtual and real headlines as early as Sunday afternoon—but for all the wrong reasons. Within hours of the announcement, comiXology’s servers crashed under the added strain of hundreds of thousands of registered users trying to make selections and access the comics all at once on their browsers and the comiXology mobile app, not to mention the influx of new users registering for the comiXology service for the first time to take advantage of the deal.

Does not compute: comiXology users have spent the past few days getting quite familiar with the above error message.

Does not compute: comiXology users spent the past few days getting quite familiar with the above error message.

At the time of this writing, rumor is that Marvel may extend the promotion beyond the original March 12 end-date, to allow users unable to access comiXology due to server issues time to get their free comics. And while we haven’t heard anything official from DC Comics, Image Comics, and other publishers who sell digital material on comiXology alongside Marvel, they can’t possibly be happy that a promotion by a rival publisher has inadvertently cut them off from their digital comics readership by temporarily torpedoing their shared digital distribution platform.

Pictured: A comiXology user expression his frustration at the recent server crash.

Pictured: A comiXology user expresses frustration at the recent server crash.

There are all sorts of storylines and issues at play here for all involved. The most obvious one, of course, is that comiXology either overestimated its network infrastructure’s ability to meet the demands placed upon it by the promotion or it underestimated the appeal of the promotion. Or it might have made both assumptions in error. The expected response to this issue is similarly straightforward: comiXology needs to build up its infrastructure so that it is robust enough to handle similar events in the future. For Marvel, the biggest takeaway is that there is a huge readership out there for nominally free digital comics from its back catalogue, in numbers perhaps unanticipated by the publisher and its digital distribution partner. It sounds like a “no, duh!” point to make—people love getting free stuff, after all—but consider all the creators and publishers out there giving away free content on the web and yet still struggle to get the denizens of the Internet to throw click-throughs their way: the Marvel brand obviously resonates strongly with the public, and it will be interesting to see what lessons, if any, Marvel will learn from this experience, especially considering the very real criticisms that have been recently levied against its back catalogue management strategy.

To me however, this incident primarily served to highlight significant flaws in the digital rights management (DRM, also sometimes referred to as “digital restrictions management”) system used by a service like comiXology, and how the consumer experience is negatively and needlessly affected because of those flaws. Online DRM is innately built into comiXology’s way of doing business. When a user buys a digital comic from comiXology, what he or she is actually purchasing is a limited license to read the digital comic under a specific set of conditions defined by the digital comics distributor. ComiXology is able to enforce these conditions primarily by restricting—to a degree—the user’s access to the digital comic in such a way that the user can interact with the purchased content only in a controlled, online environment. Reading the comic on a personal computer requires a constant Internet connection: comiXology’s online reader runs through an Internet browser and asks the user to sign in to the service and the digital comic’s files are hosted on a remote server. The digital comic can be temporarily cached and read offline on a mobile Internet-capable device such as a smartphone or tablet running either the iOS or Android operating system, but the user must be signed into comiXology’s free third-party app to do so. This scheme allows users the freedom to read their purchases on multiple devices as long as they are logged into the service whilst at the same time blocking users from permanently downloading a copy of the digital comic onto their devices, theoretically preventing the illicit copying and distribution of the comic’s contents or at least making the process that much more difficult.

For almost all users and in the vast majority of instances, the arrangement outlined above is a perfectly reasonable one that works seamlessly and without major hassles. But when a major server snafu hits or a user is limited to an Internet connection that is unstable or intermittent (such as users on military deployment, for example), then the inconvenience wrought directly by the DRM scheme comes to the fore. As for its ability to curtail illegal copying and sharing of works under copyright? Curious users can find, either on their own or by researching online, any number of easy ways around comiXology’s restrictions preventing them from creating permanent back-up copies of their purchases.

A list of the problems posed by DRM-protected books: Feel free to re-post/share/print out this image (click to view in larger size)

A list of the problems inherent in DRM-protected e-books (and by extension, DRM-protected digital comics): Feel free to re-post/share/print out this image (click to view in larger size)

It can perhaps be reasoned that the rare systemic issues that come with using a service like comiXology are minor inconveniences when weighed against the ability to purchase digital comics online and that it is incumbent upon us now to simply accept that this is “how things work” in the digital age. But here’s the thing: If, for some reason, the management of Diamond Comics Distributors, Inc. suddenly decides to shut down their physical distribution network for a week, comics readers don’t have to worry that over that period, they will no longer be able to read the comics and graphic novels they bought from their local Diamond Comics Distributors-affiliated comic book shops. As millions of users found out these past few days, they can’t say the same for the digital comics that they bought from comiXology. If Diamond Comics Distributors goes under and is replaced by a competitor, readers can rest assured that the comics purchased from their local Diamond Comics Distributors-affiliated comic book shops won’t magically disappear from their shelves, night stands, and long boxes and they won’t have to buy them all over again from the new distributor just so they can keep re-reading them. By contrast, unless users are willing to violate comiXology’s terms of service and make illegal back-up copies of their digital comics, the longevity of their comiXology-bought digital comics collection (and their ability to re-read their digital comics at will) is inextricably and directly tied to that of the company. Barring some radical restructuring of its agreement with comics publishers, if comiXology goes down, it’s taking all the digital comics customers bought from its site and mobile apps with it.

It’s not my intent to paint comiXology as the villain of this piece—I’m fairly certain that providing the assurance of DRM and a system capable of preventing users from creating back-up copies of digital comics were key reasons that helped convince major comics publishers and copyright holders like Marvel and DC to sell their digital wares via the service. Without an integrated DRM scheme to appease corporate bean-counters and executives, it’s doubtful that comiXology would have been able to build up the huge and unprecedented catalogue of digital comics material it currently has on offer. Additionally, comics publishers who have their own digital distribution services like VIZ Media and Dark Horse Comics operate using models similar to that employed by comiXology. But time and again, we’ve seen that it is the paying customer who is most negatively affected by DRM, especially DRM schemes that require some variation of the “always-online” server authorization model, and that DRM does little to curtail copyright infringement and that it can in fact, even hurt sales and a product or service providers’ standing among consumers and customers.

Pictured: How DRM works.

Pictured: How DRM works.

For a relevant real-world parallel that shows how punitive DRM can be to consumers who have legitimately purchased digital goods, let’s look at how Microsoft treated its customers with the tech giant’s decision to discontinue its MSN Music service in 2008. Songs purchased by customers from MSN Music had to be registered via MSN Music’s authorization servers before they could be played on devices or computers besides the original computer or device they were purchased on and downloaded to—users could authorize up to a maximum of five computers or devices to play the songs. But once the authorization servers shut down at the end of August of that year, there was no way for users to transfer and play their purchased songs on a new music player or computer short of burning them onto an audio CD and ripping lower-fidelity copies from it. The DRM even prevented MSN Music-purchased songs from being played in a previously authorized computer or device that had its operating system upgraded after the server closure. Yes, technically, Microsoft allowed users to keep working copies of the songs they purchased from MSN Music even after the service was shuttered, but those songs were practically locked to users’ aging devices and computers.

The drawbacks of online-enabled DRM are most readily apparent in the video game industry. Game publisher Electronic Arts and developer Maxis have been under fire for the “always-online” DRM requirement built into the recently-released SimCity, one of the most highly anticipated games of the year whose launch has turned into a full-on fiasco—the BBC described the launch as “shambolic”—plagued by overloaded servers locking out users from playing the game and generating a huge backlash from video game community.

The SimCity launch disaster is simply the latest in a string of high-profile, DRM-related embarrassments for game publishers and developers. Last year’s launch of Activision’s Diablo III was similarly marred by a terrible implementation of an always-online DRM requirement and publisher Ubisoft finally discarded its always-online DRM policy for PC game releases after years of complaints from players.

No DRM, no problem: CD Projekt's The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has sold over 5 million copies.

No DRM, no problem: CD Projekt’s The Witcher 2 has sold over 5 million copies.

Consumers would probably have an easier time accepting all the inconveniences engendered by always-online DRM if it can be definitively established that it actually does what it’s supposed to do, which is to stop users from making illicit copies of digital content and significantly curb copyright infringement and IP piracy. But as it stands, it doesn’t even seem like always-online DRM can do that. Video game publishers don’t normally release piracy data, but it’s clear from Ubisoft online services director Stephanie Perotti’s responses in this interview—where she explains why the game publishing giant finally dropped its unpopular always-online DRM policy for PC games—that their implementation of the always-online DRM scheme was either ineffective in combating piracy, or its negative effects on sales and consumer feedback were such that it wasn’t worth maintaining. Perotti’s admission of their DRM policy’s failure aligns with the observations made by CD Projekt CEO Marcin Iwinski, who has become a vocal advocate against the use of DRM in video games in recent years. Talking about the futility of DRM in a discussion with PC Gamer‘s Nathan Grayson, Iwinski noted the following:

Marcin Iwinski: In my almost 20 years in the

industry, I have not seen DRM that really worked (i.e. did not complicate the life of the legal gamer and at the same time protect the game). We have seen a lot of different protections, but there are only two ways you can go: Either you use light DRM, which is cracked in no time and is not a major pain for the end-user, or you go the hard way and try to super-protect the game.

Yes, it is then hard to crack, but you start messing with the operation system, the game runs much slower and—for a group of legal gamers—it will not run at all. None of these solutions really work, so why not abandon it altogether?

Perhaps no better argument against the use of overly restrictive DRM in digital comics exists than the theory and evidence-based model first proposed by Gal Oestreicher-Singer and Arun Sundararajan in a paper presented during the 2004 International Conference on Information Systems. Their study showed sales evidence from the e-book sector that supported a comprehensive mathematical model demonstrating that the granting of certain digital rights to users, such as the right to make a digital copy of a legally purchased e-book, actually exerts a measurable and direct positive effect on the value of a digital good in comparison to its physical counterpart, and using that positive effect to guide the pricing of digital goods and leverage digital media sales can and does offset losses due to piracy. We can see this effect in recent developments in the music sales industry as well: 2012 saw the total purchases of music media reach an all-time high of 1.65 billion units sold, with digital purchases accounting for a record 1.34 billion units. That this happened several months after Amazon MP3 rocked the digital music sales industry by being the first major digital music sales outlet to sell songs without DRM and after Apple’s iTunes store dropped DRM restrictions, even after Apple took the 99¢ pricing cap off songs sold on its store, should not be viewed as a coincidence. When consumers know that they can make back-up copies of their digital media purchases and use these files on their device and software platform of choice, they are more likely to actually buy those digital goods.

It’s 2013 and we already have a wealth of anecdotal, theoretical, and empirical sales-based evidence that indicate that DRM either doesn’t work in suppressing piracy or that its negative impact on the consumer experience appreciably devalues the digital good it is supposed to protect. Certain indie comics distributors like Drive Thru Comics are at the forefront of a growing trend to distribute digital comics with minimal to no DRM [full disclosure: The Comixverse is sponsored in part by Drive Thru Comics] and the Mark Waid-led Thrillbent Comics group actually offers free—both in a DRM sense and in the “you don’t have to pay to read them” sense—PDFs and CBZ archives of their comic books. If other comics creators, publishers, and distributors are to successfully navigate the digital marketplace, they have to learn from the experiences and examples of those who have gone before them and drop aggressive DRM schemes.

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