DRM, active paper, and the future of publishing

Joshua Allen maintains that e-books are stalled because we lack a DRM solution:

Lack of good, ubiquitous DRM is the only thing holding us back from some really cool advances. More than two years ago, Microsoft started making some big bets on e-books...

...The main thing standing in the way right now is lack of content due to publisher (and author) mistrust. Publishers won't publish their stuff if it's going to get ripped off, period. E-books have stalled for two years over this issue. It's about time to solve it. Better Living through Software

I can't agree. What we mainly lack, I think, is what was so beautifully envisioned in the movie Minority Report: active paper. In a scene on a subway, passengers hold newspapers made of this stuff. An issue of USA Today is a single fullsize spread on which text and images continuously update themselves. Achieving that same effect for books is, in my view, the major technical obstacle standing in the way of ubiquitous e-books.

To control content, publishers will need to balance the four mechanisms articulated by Larry Lessig: law, code, the market, and social norms. Even if airtight DRM were possible, publishers wouldn't really want it. Various kinds of "leakage" -- pass-around readership, fair-use citation -- are essential, and become more so as mindshare is increasingly weblog-driven.

When I worked with O'Reilly on its electronic reference library, Safari , protecting the IP was a top concern. We implemented such controls as are possible in a web-based medium, including spider detection and digital watermarking. But I'm sure I lost more sleep over these issues than Tim O'Reilly did. His experience tells him to trust his customers to do the right thing: pay O'Reilly a fair price for its content, and publicly uphold that social norm. By and large, they do. When O'Reilly content shows up in unauthorized form on the web, it's often customers who first spot it and report it.

DRM has its place in the world. But I wouldn't sacrifice the open architecture of the PC on the altar of DRM. It's not the thing holding e-books back. Active paper is the real technical hurdle. And beyond that, there's a purely intellectual challenge. As more and more people write for the web, publishers will have to work harder (and smarter) to create content that's worth paying for.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2002/07/08.html#a330