Louis C.K. Treads New Media Distribution Path

In case you hadn’t noticed, there is something of a revolution kicking off in the way media is distributed. It’s all going digital, the idea of ownership is changing, and, most crucially, the big media companies who currently act as middle-men are being subtly shunted out of the picture.

The latest advocate of this new way of doing business is Louis C.K. His self-distribution and honor box experiment with Live At the Beacon could pave the way for future entertainers to reach their fans and make money in the process.

Self-Distribution

Self-distribution isn’t a brand new idea. Music artists such as Radiohead and Trent Reznor have tried it before, offering albums up for download either for free or on a pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth basis. Both were highly successful, with fans supporting the effort. But both have since reverted back to using more conventional methods, suggesting the ties to record labels with their huge marketing budgets are still too tight.

There is also a self-publishing revolution occurring with a little help from Amazon. Thanks to the success of the Kindle and other eBook readers, budding novelists are now selling their written works directly through these sites. They no longer have to wait for an agent to take them on and a publisher to take note.

Louis C.K. Live At The Beacon

Louis C.K. is offering Live At The Beacon directly through his website for just $5. For that, fans can either stream or download the stand-up show. And they are doing so in their thousands. C.K. spent a small fortune putting the system in place but has already made a profit, doing so just a few days into the experiment.

His decision to put the content online with no DRM protection means Live At The Beacon has made its way onto torrent sites, but the majority of people are paying for the goods. C.K. has connected with his fans directly, made the download as easy as possible, and made it affordable to all but the tightest of individuals. And he is being rewarded for doing so.

A Path To The Future

Louis C.K. is traversing a less-traveled path than many of his comedian brethren. But even he has retained the right to sell the rights to Live At the Beacon to a traditional media company further down the line. This suggests an unwillingness to fully commit to this brave new way of distributing content, which lessens the importance of the whole experiment a little.

Still, even if C.K. does bail, someone else will now pick up from where he left off. Whether it be a fellow comedian or an entertainer from another field. If the trickle becomes a waterfall then the media companies who presently control the middle-ground between content creators and consumers will have to take note. Or stick their heads in the sand and refuse to accept the world is moving on without them. As they usually do.

Image Credit: Tyler Ross
Image Credit: Wes Bryant

Harry Potter eBooks To Be DRM Free

Personally, I am not a fan of publishers locking down eBooks with intrusive and unnecessary DRM. It devalues their product and does little to prevent piracy anyway. It’s unfortunate that almost all major publishers and digital book distributors continue to sell their books with such a handicap. One giant name in the book industry, however, is looking to shake things up.

J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, revealed her latest project yesterday. Along with a brand new online component of the Harry Potter universe known as Pottermore, Rowling revealed that both audio and eBook versions of the series would be made available digitally for the first time. Even better, the eBooks will be DRM free, meaning they can be bought and downloaded regardless of the platform they will be read on. The files will be digitally watermarked instead, associating the file to the person that purchased it.

A major publisher almost certainly wouldn’t allow such a bold move, but Rowling is able to offer her works DRM free because she retains the rights to the digital publication of the Harry Potter series.

Will this mark a turning point in the eBook industry? Will publishers and authors see that eBooks can still sell even without DRM? It’s hard to say, but it certainly won’t hurt. If Harry Potter sells well DRM free (which it almost certainly will), book publishers might finally start to see that DRM is completely unnecessary.

You can watch Rowling’s announcement for yourself in the video below.

Why Buying Music Legally Still Kinda Sucks

For some reason, I take some small amount of pleasure in buying music legally.  It’s not just because most people my age have devalued digital media to such a point that they don’t even pause before downloading an entire album illegally – a friend of mine recently told me that she wanted to “preview a song to see if it was worth pirating the whole album”, sheesh – but it’s something more than that.  I guess it’s the same reason I liked buying albums on CD when I was a kid, I liked listening to new music that I had seemingly earned by saving the money to buy it (if that makes any sense at all).

The biggest incentive for me to buy music legally is that, nowadays, I can get it in the format I want (high quality digital MP3 downloads) and without some company’s DRM restricting what devices I can play it on.  This lets me grab new music on a whim, then put it on my iPod or phone and use it on my own terms.  Both Amazon and iTunes offer DRM-free music, and I’ve always considered us consumers to be very lucky to have these options available.

Even though many improvements have been made to give paying customers access to the content they want, there are still some pitfalls.  In fact, a recent experience using the Amazon MP3 store taught me something important: buying music legally still kinda sucks.

My story is pretty simple.  The Amazon MP3 store was running a deal on several 100-song classical music collections for under $5.00.  I jumped on the deal and bought three of them (hey, classical is great to listen to when doing homework, programming, or writing this article).  I started to notice some problems almost immediately, though.  Amazon requires that you use their MP3 dowloader application to retrieve your purchased music, and it apparently doesn’t handle large quantities of songs very well.

The first album I purchased downloaded completely, but the next two stalled and eventually failed after completing only about ten songs.  Thinking this was no big deal, I tried restarting the downloads, only to find that my download “ticket” expired after the download had been initiated. Dang.

I wrote to Amazon’s customer service explaining the situation, and they were quick to reply and re-enabled my downloads.  They also pointed me to a site where I could start downloading the album again.

There was just one problem: I couldn’t find the “Download All” link, and there were a lot of songs.

Hey, what do I have going on anyway?

So I wrote back to Amazon,

Thank you for the help with my recent Amazon MP3 downloading problem.

My concern is that I have to download each of these songs, track-by-track?  There are 200+ songs and I would much prefer not having to spend the next hour clicking, saving, and opening files.

Thanks,

Evan

To which I received the unfortunate reply,

I’m sorry, currently there is no feature to download all the tracks at one click on Your Media Library.

It is always important for us to hear how customers react to all aspects of shopping at Amazon.com. Strong customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the selection and service we provide, and we appreciate the time you took to write to us. I’ve passed your comments as a feedback to the Amazon MP3 Music team.

Thank you for your interest in Amazon MP3 Music Downloads.

I’m not complaining about Amazon’s customer service here, because they were fast and seemingly sympathetic.  But the fact that I have 200+ songs that I own but don’t have easy access to sitting in a huge list on some Amazon download page is ridiculously shortsighted of whoever is running the content management section of Amazon’s MP3 store.

I purchased these albums in June, and it’s now the end of September and I haven’t even made a dent in the list yet.  It’s not entirely because I’m lazy (well, kinda), but I’ve been patiently hoping that Amazon would simply add a Download All button to mitigate these problems in the future.

A nerd like me could just as well write a script in AutoHotkey or iMacros for Firefox to make fairly quick work of this problem, but what about the average consumer?  After all, those are the ones that truly need the most streamlined purchasing process possible to keep them away from piracy. Fiascoes like this only give them another reason to learn about BitTorrent.

Image credit: Shiv Shankar Menon Palat

BioShock 2: Purchasing Looks Less and Less Appealing Thanks to DRM

BioShock 2 releases in a couple of weeks, and from the way things are going it appears publisher 2K Games is doing everything in their power to keep people from buying it. Previous details about the game’s Digital Rights Management indicated a tight lockdown, but recent statements from 2K Games claim a so-called ‘scaling back’ of DRM measures. Here’s the full release from them:

Over the past two days, I’ve fielded a lot of questions and concerns about the DRM for both the retail and digital versions of BioShock 2. Because of this feedback, we are scaling back BioShock 2’s DRM.

There will be no SecuROM install limits for either the retail or digital editions of BioShock 2, and SecuROM will be used only to verify the game’s executable and check the date. Beyond that, we are only using standard Games for Windows Live non-SSA guidelines, which, per Microsoft, comes with 15 activations (after that, you can reset them with a call to Microsoft.)

What does that mean for your gameplay experience? This means that BioShock 2’s new DRM is now similar to many popular games you advised had better DRM through both digital and retail channels. Many of you have used Batman: Arkham Asylum as an example to me, which uses the exact same Games for Windows Live guidelines as us as well as SecuROM on retail discs, and now our SecuROM is less restrictive on Steam.

I know that the variables of PC gaming can be frustrating and confusing, and when you say there is a problem, we listen, and use your suggestions to make things better. Feedback like this does not go unheard, and while this might not be the ideal protection for everyone, we will continue to listen and work with you in the future when formulating our DRM plans.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but that still sounds pretty unappealing to me. If you purchase BioShock 2 through Steam, you’ll have to go through three layers of DRM before being allowed to play your game. First are the usual checks Steam does before launching a game. Next, checks by the notoriously unreliable SecuROM are run. Finally, once the game has launched, you are required to login to a Games for Windows Live account. This is done every time you want to play the game. Thankfully there won’t be any activation limits imposed by SecuROM, but that feels like a small victory when a ludicrous amount of DRM still remains.

Measures like these are taken to prevent pre-release and release day piracy, but what happens after that? Once the game is eventually cracked, these ridiculous measures still remain to pester legitimate consumers. Thousands of people who payed full price for the game will inevitably have trouble running it, while those who pirate gain the luxury of not having to put up with such restrictive measures.

When will publishers and developers learn that restrictive DRM does nothing but hurt the game industry and frustrate their paying customers? Independent developers like 2D Boy (World of Goo) and Positech Games (Gratuitous Space Battles) have found success with completely DRM free releases, but larger publishers still insist on driving away the consumer.

Why the Kindle Sucks (and What Can Be Done About It)

Over the holiday season, Amazon’s Kindle became the most gifted item in Amazon’s history. On Christmas day, Amazon sold more Kindle copies of books than actual physical books.  Without a doubt, E-readers are the future of the book industry, and the Kindle is leading the way. Or is it?

Unfortunately, it isn’t.  The Kindle sucks.

The Kindle, which was one of the first mainstream E Ink readers and easily the most popular E-book reader out there, allows you to download digital copies of books, newspapers, and other publications for reading on an E-ink display. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, archaic DRM restrictions and totalitarian actions by Amazon have prevented the Kindle from becoming a worthy purchase.

What Exactly Is Wrong With the Kindle?

Since it’s impossible to have an article about the Kindle without talking about the 1984 debacle, we’ll get that out of the way. In July of 2009, Amazon remotely removed titles (including 1984, ironically) from consumer’s Kindles without their permission. Customers were refunded the purchase price, but no immediate explanation was given. It was later revealed that the publisher of the novels didn’t own the rights to publish, but does their mistake grant Amazon the right to digitally intrude into consumer’s devices to correct their mistake? If a bookstore sold paperbacks that were later found to be illegally sold, would they have the right to come into your home and take it back? Of course not, that’s ludicrous. However, Amazon had no problem doing the digital version of just that.

If you ever decide to move to a different company’s E-reader you’re out of luck, none of the books you bought through Amazon will work.Amazon sells E-books in their own proprietary DRM protected format, AZW. Much like the DRM protected music of days past it lets Amazon restrict how you use your purchased material. If you ever decide to move to a different company’s E-reader you’re out of luck. None of the books you bought through Amazon will work. If one day Amazon decides they don’t want you to own a book anymore, as in the 1984 incident, they can go ahead and take it from you. Similarly, the Kindle supports very few formats other than AZW. Of course you can convert from these formats to AZW using external tools, but then you run the risk of losing formatting.

In many ways, Amazon’s business model is similar to that of the digital distribution service Steam. Steam allows you to purchase video games and immediately download and play them. Purchases are tied to your Steam account, which means you can play them on any computer as long as you are logged in to Steam. Many people are fully rejecting Steam’s business model, arguing that Valve can pull the plug on Steam at any time, rendering all of your purchased games unplayable.  In my research I found claims that Valve has said they would release a patch allowing people to play their games offline, but I could find no official statement.

The same could happen for the Kindle, albeit slightly differently. If Amazon ever decides to change the format of their DRM protected books, or for some reason the Kindle stops being produced, your purchased titles are only good for as long as your Kindle lasts. I own books purchased 15+ years ago, but how many people who own Kindles today will still own one 15 years from now? Thanks to the DRM protected books Amazon sells, if anyone decides they want an E-reader other than the Kindle all of their purchased material will become unusable.

One of the advantages of E-books is that they can be sold at a cheaper price than their paperback or hardcover counterparts since there’s no overhead of printing costs. This works great when the E-book you’re buying is in an open format that you’ll be able to keep and use forever, but for something in Amazon’s AZW format it just doesn’t make sense. How long will Amazon support files in the AZW format? What happens to the E-books sold in this format if Amazon decides to move to a different format? As we’ve seen with DRM protected music, this can cause problems such as people not being able to access the content they’ve purchased. About a year ago iTunes finally stopped selling DRM protected music, how long will it take before E-book sellers see the light as well?

There’s Still Hope

Sony Reader

Thankfully, not every company shares Amazon’s archaic views. Sony’s Reader Store recently changed so all of the content sold by them is in the wonderfully open, DRM free EPUB format. Also, four leading magazine publishers are now trying to come up with a DRM free standard to distribute digital magazines.
(UPDATE 1-25-09 – It has come to my attention that the Sony Reader Store does not, in fact, sell their books DRM free. They use the EPUB format, but unfortunately are still protected by a DRM solution provided by Adobe. Looks like we’ll still have to wait for DRM free books.)

At least one author has even found success by selling his book DRM free. David Pogue offered one of his books for sale DRM free for a year and compared the sales of it to the previous year’s DRM protected book’s sales. While piracy of his book did increase, sales also rose over the previous year’s numbers. As was found in the music and PC gaming industries, you can make money even without DRM.

The Future

What does the future hold? What can we as consumers do? Amazon has dominated the E-book market up until now, but 2010 looks to be the year of the E-reader. Everyone is trying to get into the market, and we can only hope that pressure from competitors forces Amazon to rethink their current stance on distribution. Until then, the only thing we can do is purchase E-readers from companies who support open formats, and if you already own a Kindle, protect your investment by converting your legally purchased books into a DRM-free PDF file.

Author’s Note: If you find any factual errors in this article, please let me know in the comments. I did my best to research everything thoroughly, but the possibility for errors still exists.