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Ransomed Content

January 12, 2011

I was a comic book junkie when I was young. My reading habit was aided by the second-hand market for comics established by a local mom-and-pop grocery store. Kids from the local high school would buy comics at list price (eight or ten cents in those days) and sell them for a penny after reading. I got to buy them for two cents. The system worked to everyone's advantage. Five unwanted comic books got a teenager a pack of gum (yes, only five cents in those days), the grocer got a little money to spend on his kids, and a nine year old was able to read science fiction comics he couldn't afford. Fast forward a few decades, and this business model that worked so well has been destroyed by publishers' attempts to convince people that they don't really buy what they read - They're merely allowed a short-term use of it for the price they pay. The product chain of my youth of publisher-retailer-first purchaser-second purchaser-third purchaser which had five winners is now transformed to one in which we have two winners and three losers.

Sure, publishers deserve to make money. In fact, they need to make money. Otherwise, they'll be out of business and many readers will be out of luck; although electronic self-publishing might save the readers (and the authors, too). But the trend towards ransoming content for outlandish amounts of money is troubling. I've been a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation for many years, and the EFF is trying hard to buck this trend. The trouble is that people aren't paying attention to the forces that are eroding their quality of life. Of course, these are the same people who rolled-over when their previously free broadcast content migrated to cable television, whether traditional or fiberoptic cable, for a monthly rental. Even then, they don't always get what they paid for, since cable companies and content providers have had many recent squabbles in which the real losers are the viewers when the content has been blacked out. My mother lost local news access at the end of last year because of one such squabble between her cable company and the local television station.[1-3]

Newton's Principia

Dead tree version of Newton's Principia, still readable after three hundred years. (Photo by Andrew Dunn.)

I still enjoy the dead tree version of books and magazines, but I'll be forced eventually to go electronic. The displays on electronic book readers are getting bigger and easier on the eye, and the reader prices are coming down. But it's not the hardware that worries me. I have many books on my bookshelf that I bought in high school, nearly fifty years ago. All still readable, and all still mine. I also have books much older that I purchased at used book stores. Same story.

That electronic novel I buy this year might be unreadable a few years after that when my current book reader dies and I wasn't allowed to make a backup copy of the content because of digital rights management. Perhaps I was allowed to transfer my content to another reader before my present reader died, but the new reader had to be purchased at a high price from the same company as the older one. The half-life of corporations seems to be decreasing. Perhaps the company that sold me the reader and its content will suddenly disappear, orphaning all my purchased books.[4] There's also the Orwellian feature called remote content removal. Furthermore, why should an electronic version be just as expensive as the dead tree version when nearly all production, distribution and retailing cost have been stripped from the product? Just a little business sense tells you that an electronic copy should be sold for just 25% of the dead tree version.

Yes, the same person who embraced computing for half as century appears to be a Luddite in this respect. But it's not the technology that's objectionable. It's the vast corp of business school spreadsheet pilots and their executive overlords who strive always for the win at the expense of everyone's loss. Haven't we learned anything from the 2007-2010 Financial Crisis?


  1. Courtney Potts, "No deal on WKTV contract; programs pulled from Time Warner," Utica Observer-Dispatch, December 16, 2010.
  2. State and local officials ask FCC to help resolve Time Warner/Smith Media contract dispute (WKTV, December 28, 2010).
  3. Courtney Potts, "Smith Media, Time Warner reach deal; WKTV to return in 24 hours," Utica Observer-Dispatch, January 8, 2011.
  4. Michael Hiltzik, "Looking at the cloud from both sides now," Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2010.

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Linked Keywords: Comic book; junkie; mom-and-pop; high school; science fiction comics; electronic self-publishing; Electronic Frontier Foundation; cable television; fiberoptic; Issac Newton; Principia; Andrew Dunn; dead tree' digital rights management; DRM; half-life; corporation; Orwellian; remote content removal; common sense; business sense; Luddite; Master of Business Administration; MBA; business school spreadsheet pilots; robber baron; executive overlord; 2007-2010 Financial Crisis.