This morning I awakened from a horrible nightmare. Perhaps somewhat apropos for Halloween. But the dream didn’t involve vampires, wiches, or ghosts. It was about Digital Restrictions Management (DRM).
I dreamt that I went into a bookstore to browse. I pulled a book from a shelf and opened it, only to find that the pages were all blank. Thinking that this was a printing error, I looked at another copy of the same book, but it was blank as well. Hmmm… looked like a whole print run might have been defective.
I found a different book in another section of the bookstore. It was blank too! I ran around checking random books throughout the store; they were all blank.
I found an employee and asked about it. He explained to me that these are the new and improved electronic books with DRM. When you buy the book, they activate it and you provide a thumbprint on a spot on the inside cover of the book. From then on, the content becomes visible when you scan your thumbprint on that spot again, and disappears when you set the book down.
I pointed out that this was ridiculous, and that I couldn’t decide which book(s) to buy without examining some of the content in the store. I ended up in an argument with the store employee, who tried to convince me that it was unfair to the author and publisher for me to be able to see any of the content before I’d purchased the book, or if I let other people read the book without paying. He said that if they didn’t have protection like this, authors and publishers wouldn’t have any incentive to write and publish new books. He also pointed out that the new books had the great feature that they only had to have their batteries recharged every week or so, and that the charging system (a plate that you set the book upon for a few hours) was available for only $49.95, with a $20 mail in rebate if I also bought three books.
I decided to buy one book just to see how it worked. It was some sort of technical book. I went home, thumbed the cover, and started reading. The phone rang. I set the book down (open, pages down), and answered the phone. When I picked up the book again, it had gone blank, and I had to thumb it again.
I found some useful information in the book, and I wanted to share it with a friend. I figured that the easiest way to do that was to scan one page, crop the scan, and email it to my friend. I put the book on the scanner, but the resulting scan was just a blank page. I tried to take a photo of it with my digital camera, but as soon as the camera tried to focus on it the page went blank.
I decided that I’d just tell my friend the information when I next saw him. But when we met, I couldn’t remember the information. As soon as we parted, I could remember it again.
I was upset, and took the book back to the bookstore to complain. The store employee swiped the book past the activation system, punched a few buttons, then told me that I couldn’t have a refund because I’d already read part of the book.
I took the book home again, thumbed it to make the pages visible, then tried to subvert the DRM to make the pages permanently visible. That would be illegal under US law (the anti-circumvention prohition of the-DMCA), but if I just did this in the privacy of my own home, who would ever know?
When I started trying to hack the book, the pages all went blank, and thumbing the cover would no longer bring them back. Worse yet, police arrived at my door minutes later and arrested me.
I woke up very scared and angry.
What happened in the dream may seem like a ridiculous fantasy. Unfortunately the technology needed to make all of this happen (except forgetting the content when I saw my friend) already exists and is in the process of being commercialized. Pages that can be blanked are quite possible with digital paper, which appeared in some products in 2004. Finger recognition technology has been available for several years. Inductive charging systems have been demonstrated for notebook computers and other electronic devices. Various tamper-proofing systems have been used in consumer products. Blanking the pages when you set down the book can be accomplished using low-cost three-axis accelerometers, though they would also blank the book if you hold it too steady. And blanking if the book is scanned or photographed can be accomplished with infrared sensing (most cameras use infrared for autofocus).
In 1997, Richard Stallman wrote a fictional account of DRM of electronic books viewed on computer displays in the mid 21st century, in his short story The Right to Read. When I first read the story, I thought that it was completely implausible. Unfortunately events since that time seem to indicate that we are moving in that direction, and technology developments are such that the scenario he describes may soon be possible with actual physical books, not just computer displays, because a physical book may actually be a computer display.
In the film The Princess Bride, the grandfather (played by Peter Falk) at one point explains to his grandson “When I was your age, television was called books!” Will my grandchildren believe me when I tell them that in the good old days, you could lend books to friends, and that there were even organizations that purchased many books for the express purpose of lending them out?