Business Tech : Print Media (Part 3)

Steal This Book

I'm sitting at a dinner, at a software conference — not Spectrum by the way — and I get approached by an unsolicited client. He says to me, "I need to do a project, and I know you have the software I need to finish it." Then the guy on the other side of me says, "I have some code I can give you instead. It's only about 80% done but you can have it for free." And suddenly the sale was cold.

What happens in software sales can happen in book sales. Worse yet, sometimes the free product we are competing with is our own. In the old days, stealing my book involved a copy machine, or actual theft. In the digital world, theft is easier. Every laptop is a possible "copy machine," and every web site or ftp site is a potential mass distribution system. So, how do you protect your work?

DRM a Little DRM of Me

There is existing tech for protecting your creative works. You'll notice that I didn't say there was good tech, or well thought-out tech, or user friendly tech. The 800 pound gorilla in protection is DRM, Digital Rights Management, which is result of the DMCA, Digital Millennium Copyright Act. What is the DCMA? Imagine if a group of lawyers got together and remembered that they were being paid by angry corporations and forgot that they themselves are consumers of music, books, movies, etc. The result is much like a cheap lock; it restricts the honest people and does nothing to stop the thieves.

What does DRM do? It limits the number of times you can move a piece of media (music, movie, book) from one device to another, possibly limits the number of times you can play it, or otherwise converts the old idea (you OWN an instance of the media) to the new idea (we are doing you a favor by letting you have temporary access to this). Even the industry which created it is starting to distance itself from DRM. In Wired, we see this quote: "As a consumer, when you buy a slice of bread you want to know you could put it in any toaster," said Jeanne Meyer, a vice president at EMI.

The worst part isn't DRM itself. If you look past the user-adverse approach and implementation you'll realize the EULAs (End-User Licensing Agreements) that go with it are the deeper evil. Some of these agreements require you, the user, to allow the provider to install software on your device which will inventory it and report possible infringements. Of course, what it thinks are infringements might not be, but, on the bright side, you might get to go to court and try to prove it.

Apple has been the standard bearer for killing DRM. They do have their own, far less obnoxious version, but they have created a model where DRM is usually dropped. Of course, that leaves us with no real alternative for protecting our rights. Apple has also created a new problem...

99 Scents

Apple has established that virtually all media content is worth 99 cents or is free. On the one hand, it has been a successful model for a lot of companies, both small and large. On the other hand, if your content does not fit one of those two models, you will meet a higher level of resistance. So, our choices are: (a) watch people rip us off, (b) use DRM or the like to alienate our customers while not stopping the thieves in any meaningful way, (c) sell out at 99 cents and hope to make it up on volume even though you'll still have some percentage of thieves who won't even give you the 99 cents worth of dignity, or (d) give it away.

So, if you want to get in on the ground floor of a meaningful new category of software, build a viable form of copy protection that both consumers and industry will accept. Keep ahead of the thieves and you can name your own price. Even if that price is over 99 cents.

What You Negotiate

We are business professionals, so profit has to be a motive in our work. When we do things for free or excessively cheaply, it has to lead to a profit down the line. One way to do that is to give away the core and sell the add-ons. I play games where the game is free, but for $5 or $10 you can get certain one-shot items. Imagine an electronic book where the content is free, but the author's extended edition costs money. Or a song where the music is free, but the lyrics sheet and the video cost extra. Perhaps a free movie, but the commercial free edition costs $2. All of these approaches need a way to marry the free product to the option to pay. After all, I can't pay you for content if I don't know that you are selling it.

So the money in the new media, including the digital print arena, comes in sideways, and that requires all sorts of tech to support it. Smart web sites that work on limited screens like those on smart phones are a given. ESD (Electronic Software Delivery) is morphing into electronic content delivery. Better customer service software is needed to support the call volume that comes from grossing 99 cents eight times instead of selling the paperback once for $7.99. If it takes eight sales to hit the same gross, we are compelled to contain the costs through automation, Eliza-like online help bots, and every other innovation we can dream up. Increasingly, media businesses are becoming technology businesses where the delivery and control of product is more critical than the content.


Lost in this shuffle are the creative people who don't self-publish. I was discussing the TV show 24 Hour Restaurant Battle with my sister, Shelley, who has been in the food business for most of her life. When I mentioned that each team is given a total of four thousand dollars to buy all the "front of the house items" like chairs, tables, artwork for the walls, and all the food , she reminded me that in a restaurant, food is the smallest expense. Likewise, in most media, the musician/writer/artist/designer/et al is usually amongst the lowest paid participants in the business.

As software professionals, it is actually possible for us to out earn the content providers. Of course the real money is in ownership. Those fat cats make the big money. All they have to do is risk financial ruin, keep everything running, be the most public face of the company if it fails, and generally hear their employees discount their value. When you look at it the right way, everyone in any business is getting a raw deal. Every job has a "suck factor."

Why, Why, Why, Delilah?

Summing up, print is dead, no one is making better than 99 cents a unit without an uphill fight, real content protection is still theoretic, everyone wants you to do a perfect job and still give everything away for free, and every role in the process has a massive downside. So, why do we do it? If we aren't doing it today, why would we get into it?

There are as many answers as there are people. For some of us, our job is a calling. For some, it is just a paycheck. When you look beyond the personal reasons, we, as a species need to create art and literature. We need to share it.


Charles Barouch is the CTO of HDWP, Inc. He is also a regular contributor to International Spectrum Magazine, a former Associate Editor for both Database Trends and for Gateways Magazine, a former distance learning Instructor for CALC. He is presently the Past President of the U2UG. Mr. Barouch has presented technology and business topics in front of hundreds of companies, in a wide range of product and service categories. He is available for on-site speaking and consulting engagements in and out of the United States.

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Nov/Dec 2010