Putting money where my noisy mouth is

I go on a lot about media and software freedom, but what do I actually do about it?
Realising that talk without action achieves nothing, I decided to put some of my hard-earned money behind some of my principles.

In recent times I’ve become quite disheartened by the record industry’s protection racket. Their business model is failing and, since they are big bureaucratic monoliths, they are struggling to adapt. Their approach has been to stick DRM on everything, which basically restricts your ability to do what you want with something that you paid for, and should technically belong to you.
They say all these measures are to protect their artists, but they really only protect the company profits (and seem to be failing at that anyway). This draconian nonsense caused me to boycott music. I just don’t buy it any longer.

That is, until I looked around on the internet a little and found a vast resource of independent “record labels.” A few examples are:

I purchased two albums from Magnatune, and 50% of what I paid goes directly to the artist.
But Magnatune doesn’t stop there. They tell you to share the album with three friends. They figure that if people are going to be dishonest, then that’ll happen anyway — regardless of whether record companies try to do something about it or not. Might as well encourage sharing — cheap marketing.
Another bonus is that you, as the consumer, get to choose what you think the music is worth. The price isn’t set you decide — but the more you pay the more the artist gets.
The albums I bought are

Take a listen. If you like them, let me know and I’ll give you the url and password to download them (or you can just come over to my house and copy the files — geography and familiarity permitting).

The other music sites have varying business models and they all work differently. Throughout though, the music is DRM-free, and that’s what really matters to me.

I haven’t stopped at music. I’ve extended my approach to software
I’m a big advocate of open source software, but I’ve never given anything back to the community. I use the software. I tell people about it. I lord its merits.
But if everyone only did that, there wouldn’t be any software to promote.

The logical way to contribute to open source software is to write some code and submit it to a software project. I suck at writing code — so there goes that one.
I’m not too bad at writing deciphered words, so I tried contributing to the Ubuntu documentation team. That didn’t last very long. Writing documentation quickly became tedious and mundane. Perhaps I’ll look back into it sometime.
No, the easiest thing to do is contribute money to a project. It minimises your time investment and optimises the value of the contribution because that money can be used to pay an expert to do what you would have done poorly.
I sent the team that develops the Firefox add-on, DownThemAll, a donation. It was really a sort of experiment. They sent me an email thanking me for the contribution. Now I intend to send donations to other open source projects which I find to be particularly useful, and well implemented.

It’s interesting to me that I was inspired to make these donation because my brother had registered a shareware application called Total Commander. It’s not open source, and it only works on Windows. Still, he spoke about how he was so impressed with it that he figured the developer deserved the money.
That sentiment seems to have had a lasting impression on me.

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Successful e-book readers: not going to happen

Don’t get the wrong impression about my enthusiasm for e-book reader technology from this post’s title. I’m very excited about it, I just don’t think it’s going to take off unless a lot of things change. I’ve had my eye on e-book readers for a while. Alas, they don’t seem to make it across those vast oceans down here to the southern tip of Africa.
This is probably because they struggle to make much of an impression on the markets into which they are introduced. Africa only gets things imported to it once they’ve been proven in developed markets.
I’ve mentioned Sony’s reader in the past, and I linked to this New York Times article on it.

For your convenience I’ll summarise the NYTimes article.

  1. In 2001 everyone thought that ebooks would revolutionise the printing industry, but by 2003 everyone realised that they actually sucked and stopped bothering.
  2. Sony didn’t agree, and brought out a new, exorbitantly expensive e-book reader that uses exciting new technology — E Ink.
  3. E Ink makes reading more pleasant than it would be on a computer monitor, and can be seen in direct sunlight.
  4. You can buy e-books for it, but they have dumbass Digital Restrictions Management which limit the number of copies you can make of the book and rob you of the right to resale the e-book you purchased.
  5. Fortunately, you can also read non-DRM crippled documents.
  6. The controls are counter-intuitive, but mostly the thing seems to work quite well
  7. Other companies are also disagree that e-books suck, and are trying to produce their own dedicated readers (here’s a list of the devices)

This brings us to why I’m writing about this topic again. Lately I’ve been giving Thought Leader a look, and the blogs there are interesting and insightful.
I noticed that Eve Dmochowska wants a Kindle for Christmas, and I decided to throw some of my thoughts into the fray. I could’ve just posted a comment on that blog, but I have a lot to say and didn’t want to chase her readers away with a tedious monologue. Waffle Group readers know to expect danger when that “rambling waffle” category is used — I doubt Thought Leader reader are properly equipped for the monotony.

Kindle is what Amazon.com have recently brought out to compete with Sony’s e-reader. As Eve says, Kindle has potential because Amazon.com already have the connections with book publishers to more easily distribute popular e-book titles. Even more sneaky is the fact that a PC is not required to use Kindle. It has a wireless modem and can connect to EVDO/CDMA networks (provided such network connectivity is available — something she admits would be problematic in South Africa at the moment), and thus can directly download e-books from Amazon.com .
That last sentence is where my optimism about this technology whithers, while Eve’s is nourished. Forget the connectivity issue. Let’s assume that’s all sorted out, as it probably will be in the market where the product is first introduced (the USA).
Eve waxes lyrical about the technology liberating writers from the publishing-house stranglehold. No need to get a publisher to print your novel, just self-publish digitally and you have a simple, cost-effective distribution channel with no overheads for your work.
I totally agree with Eve and the industry shake-up this has the potential to cause, except…

E-books can be downloaded from Amazon.com. Only Amazon.com. And they come in a proprietary format that other e-book readers cannot read. The books are also encumbered with brain-dead DRM.
Certainly Kindle supports some other formats, so one isn’t actually completely reliant on Amazon.com for reading material. Unfortunately some of those formats can only be read on the Kindle if they are converted to Amazon’s format, and to do that you need to email them the document and they’ll email it back in the proprietary format — for a price.
Here’s the problem with proprietary formats and DRM: if this e-book reader thing actually takes off, and Apple brings out an iReader, I might want to ditch the Kindle and go with their uber-cool design and user-interface instead. Sadly I won’t be able to read any of the books I bought in Amazon’s locked file format. That’s the proprietary format issue. Why do these companies use their own secret formats when there is an open standard available? I’m not answering that.

The DRM issue is even worse. Amazon allows authors to upload documents which will be delivered to the Kindle via their Whispernet service. The author chooses the selling price, and Amazon keeps 65% of it. Anyone can publish, and Rick Aristotle Munarriz has tested the scenario that Eve suggests will promulgate itself across the publishing world.
Glorious! I wonder if the Kindle and Whispernet support publishing work under a Creative Commons licence? I doubt it. DRM and CC tend to be an anathema to one another. If you think people don’t publish novels under a Creative Commons licence and make a commercial success of it, think again. Cory Doctorow is an excellent example. I doubt he’ll be distributing via this channel until the DRM stuff is ditched.

If the music industry is anything to go by, DRM just damages sales figures. People get pissed off when you don’t let them do what they want with something they purchased, and irrespective of copyright law, believe that they own.
People who are going to conduct copyright infringement will do it regardless of DRM, because there are always technical work-arounds to this kind of tomfoolery. People who would legitimately have bought the products won’t, because they don’t want the crap and would rather go without music than deal with the idiocy of big corporations.
Digital distribution of music still works though, because the peer-to-peer networks and associated copyright infringement by sharing digital music became firmly entrenched before the recording industry caught on and instituted the DRM foolishness. Now the portable music playing devices are affordable. They may have been expensive when they were first released, but MP3s could be played on a PC too. The compressed format was established and one needed to only wait for the early adopters to buy enough MP3-players to drive the prices down.
This isn’t going to work with books. The DRM is in place first. The e-book reader is too expensive, but unlike music, e-book formats for dedicated e-book readers are not suitable for PCs and laptops. The people who buy the e-books and the readers are going to get annoyed with the DRM thing and the vendor lock-in, and tell their other earlier-adopter friends not to bother. Thus the price doesn’t go down. Thus another e-book reader fails.

I hope I’m completely wrong, because those e-book readers are nifty. I’m not sure they’re “sexy” though (a term Eve favoured in her post).
Seriously, have you seen a picture of these things? Sexy has more curves. 😉