Monday, April 26, 2010

Can You Survive a Benevolent Dictatorship?

The press loves the iPad, but beware Apple's attempt to shackle your readers to its hardware

By Cory Doctorow

The first press accounts of the Apple iPad have been long on emotional raves about its beauty and ease of use, but have glossed over its competitive characteristics—or rather, its lack thereof. Some have characterized the iPad as an evolution from flexible-but-complicated computers to simple, elegant appliances. But has there ever been an "appliance" with the kind of competitive control Apple now enjoys over the iPad? The iPad's DRM restrictions mean that Apple has absolute dominion over who can run code on the device—and while that thin shellac of DRM will prove useless at things that matter to publishers, like preventing piracy, it is deadly effective in what matters to Apple: preventing competition.

Maybe the iPad will fizzle. After all, that's what has happened to every other tablet device so far. But if you're contemplating a program to sell your books, stories, or other content into the iPad channel with hopes of it becoming a major piece of your publishing business, you should take a step back and ask how your interests are served by Apple's shackling your readers to its hardware. The publishing world chaos that followed the bankruptcy of Advanced Marketing Group (and subsidiaries like Publishers Group West) showed what can happen when a single distributor locks up too much of the business. Apple isn't just getting big, however; it's also availing itself of a poorly thought-out codicil of copyright law to lock your readers into its platform, limit innovation in the e-book realm, and ultimately reduce the competition to serve your customers.


Here's what most mainstream press reports so far haven't told you. The iPad uses a DRM system called "code-signing" to limit which apps it can run. If the code that you load on your device isn't "signed," that is, approved by Apple, the iPad will not run it. If the idea of adding this DRM to the iPad is to protect the copyrights of the software authors, we can already declare the system an abject failure—independent developers cracked the system within 24 hours after the first iPad shipped, a very poor showing even in the technically absurd realm of DRM. Code-signing has also completely failed for iPhones, by the way, on which anyone who wants to run an unauthorized app can pretty easily "jailbreak" the phone and load one up.

But DRM isn't just a system for restricting copies. DRM enjoys an extraordinary legal privilege previously unseen in copyright law: the simple act of breaking DRM is illegal, even if you're not violating anyone's copyright. In other words, if you jailbreak your iPad for the purpose of running a perfectly legal app from someone other than Apple, you're still breaking the law. Even if you've never pirated a single app, nor violated a single copyright, if you're found guilty of removing an "effective means of access control," Apple can sue you into a smoking hole. That means that no one can truly compete with Apple to offer better iStores, or apps, with better terms that are more publisher- and reader-friendly. Needless to say, it is also against the law to distribute tools for the purpose of breaking DRM.

Think about what that kind of control means for the future of your e-books. Does the company that makes your toaster get to tell you whose bread you can buy? Your dishwasher can wash anyone's dishes, not just the ones sold by its manufacturer (who, by the way, takes a 30% cut along the way). What's more, you can invent cool new things to do with your dishwasher. For example, you can cook salmon in it without needing permission from the manufacturer (check out the Surreal Gourmet for how). And you can even sell your dishwasher salmon recipe without violating some obscure law that lets dishwasher manufacturers dictate how you can use your machine.

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