eBook DRM: Doomed, please let it be doomed

I’m not generally speaking one to take up a dogmatic position on this sort of thing, but the more attention you pay to DRM and the way it doesn’t work, the more convinced I am that there are whole industries here set up around deliberately shooting oneself in the foot.

I’ve been using my Sony eReader quite happily with Gutenberg content and some other stuff too. But when Mac “support” (and I use the term advisedly) came along, I thought I would play nicely and behave.

So I bought a very cheap book from Waterstones’ online store and decided to download it legally. First off, I had to install Sony’s Reader Library software. Sometimes it’s called the EBL, which means the same thing, you just have to kind of guess that. It looks like an Air app, but installing it requires a restart (my first in a month, but hey, I’m open minded at this point).

Now comes the fun part: downloading the book. Waterstones give me a page telling me I have to have Digital Editions installed (which, as it happens, I know I don’t, but their sales completion page disagrees with their own eBook FAQ). So I click on the Digital Editions link to see if I really can install it — and am told that whilst doing so is mandatory and supported, it is also “System”, which means impossible and unsupported:

(By the way, the brown button is a link, which I clicked hoping it would explain what was going on, but it takes you to this page. Ho hum. I’d like to know what the minimum system requirements are, because I’m doing all this on a month-old Core i5 iMac with 4GB of RAM and about 900GB of spare disk space, so their target market here is going to be pretty slim: Crays? A Beowulf cluster of them?)

OK, think I, I am bigger than this. Just because they’re saying I have to download Digital Editions doesn’t mean I actually have to download Digital Editions. I can use the EBL (that’s “EBL” for “Reader Library”, remember) instead of Digital Editions. So I ignore the warning on the site and nervously click the button anyway. Sure enough, a file downloads. Woo! I am having a success here! Much happiness. This is a “licence file” which is a pointer to content held somewhere else. Now all I do is double-click the file, and Reader Library launches. Woo!

Now it advises me that, to open this file, I will need to authorise this computer for Adobe DRM. Fine, think I, this is OK; in fact I *have* a Digital Editions account for when I was playing around with this when I first got the Reader before there was Mac software for it. So I tap in the email address, click in the password field, and then my keyboard stops working. Ten minutes of grief later, including fetching an old keyboard from the wardrobe in case the Sony software was unhappy about Bluetooth keyboards being used on password fields (laudable security-consiousness?) I realise that you actually just have to restart a random number of times and never use the mouse and then sometimes you will be able to type in the password field.

Deep breath, cup of coffee. Not that I would, but if I were to have taken the piracy route, I would now have been fifty pages into the book. As it is I have a new piece of software and a headache and less money and a wonky muscle from trying to extract the keyboard from the top of the wardrobe. But all this has been carefully planned out by all these nice people so probably it’ll all be very smooth now.

But of course, it isn’t.

Having finally got the thing to accept that, yes, these keystrokes are intended for that textfield, I triumphantly click on “Yes” to authorise this computer. The dialog box closes and… well, that’s it. It’s closed.

Skip ten minutes with Sony’s online help, Waterstones’ FAQs, and I learn that if I select “About Reader Library” it will tell me whether the computer has been successfully authorised for Adobe DRM. I duly so select and discover that all my clicking has had no effect whatsoever as this computer is not authorised, etc. etc. You could see this one coming, right?

So I repeat the whole sorry business. And it’s miserable.

And it doesn’t work.

Now fuming, and convinced that, were there justice in the world, every person responsible for this user interaction fiasco would be burning in a pit of molten glass, I decide to relax, let my mind wander, and remember that I am an intelligent software designer and that I can figure this out. Of course, the answer is to install Digital Editions (let’s just remind ourselves that, for reasons I am not authorised to know, my system doesn’t meet the fabled Minimum Requirement), authorise *that* on first run, and then restart the Reader Library. Then double-click on the book. Sorry, the licence for the book. Then it opens, then it downloads it. I weep with very joy.

Then I drag the book from the “Library” entry to the “Reader” entry and am prompted to authorise my reader…. which was fine, actually, but you can imagine the thoughts pounding through my mind in enormous nervousness.

Moral of the story: a legitimate purchase cost me a couple of quid for a sample book, about an hour and a half out of my Sunday, a headache, a pulled muscle, and total loss of any remaining calm. I realise that there are all sorts of very difficult issues here for Waterstones and for Sony in keeping publishers happy and in providing support across multiple third parties, but let’s be clear:

  • There was no consistent attempt on Waterstones’ part to explain what I, as an end user on a supported platform, needed to do to get the content I had purchased. The only attempt there was was basically wrong (“You must install Digital Editions”). I would recommend they test their usability on the entire product stack because even if 90% of this wasn’t their fault, it’s still their brand I had the relationship with. And I am telling people how bad it was.
  • Sony, Sony, Sony. You have finally done Mac support. I love you. But please user test your site and call your software by the same name throughout. I beg you. And I know it’s difficult-to-impossible with the geographically fragmented content market to give consistent directions to users, but see if there’s anything you can do. And fix the Adobe DRM in Reader Library – it’s the sole reason people install this over, say, the excellent and free-as-in-speech Calibre, so you should be testing the bejesus out of it, not releasing something that kind of works. This does your brand no good at all. And I am telling people how bad it was.
  • And oh, oh, Adobe. I don’t know what to say. You’ve found a market for this, you’ve sold it efficiently, but you are not delivering a good customer experience. You are, in fact, conspicuously inserting yourself as yet *another* party into a transaction which, even without your help, would have been significantly less pleasant than just plain old stealing. Sort out the message I get on the Waterstones site. Sort out the Sony Reader Library software for them (it looks like an Air app and I would assume Sony are just plugging in a DE authentication module from you rather than building one of their own)

So, maybe I will occasionally buy the odd non-free eBook through this route. After all, I’ve sorted all the tools out now. But I dread the day one of the parties upgrades something and I lose another Sunday afternoon to trying to have a bit of Wodehouse to flip through. And all of this because I was trying to give you my money! You’ve got to do better than this, guys. Manning manage to sell ebooks I can download immediately and read easily without any of this piddling about at all. Every page has my name on it. I have no objection to that, none. I have never pirated one because they’re damn good books and I believe it’s right to repay the authors. But where you are concerned, I am a pirate and must be protected against. So I, who try to do things the legitimate way, lose my temper and my hair while someone who is not so inclined can very easily just go and download the thing in five minutes and read it on any of his devices.

Could you just put up a paypal link accepting donations and let me get my content from BitTorrent? That would definitely be way, way simpler.