eBook pioneer Jim Baen, RIP

Jim Baen, one of the first traditional book publishers to really embrace eBooks passed away Wednesday night. I enjoy science fiction and a Baen Books best-seller 1632 was the first eBook that I read as immersively as if it were a paper book – a credit to the content, much more than to the e-Reading experience.
Groundbreaking efforts by Jim Baen to market digital and paper forms of work in combination include the Baen Free Library, the Webscription program , Advance Reader Copies. While perhaps not well known outside Baen’s particular segment, his programs have paved the way for other publisher programs such as O’Reilly Rough Cuts.
And, most of all, he demonstrated that draconian DRM is not a sine qua non for effective monetization of digital works. Both selling and freely distributing unprotected content, Baen Books increased, rather than decreased, their revenue and profits. 1632’s author Eric Flint makes an impassioned case against DRM – and Jim Baen took a big risk and proved a good part of this case.
Yet, IMO there’s still a reasonable role for digital rights management in protection of eBooks and other digital content. Publishers will make different decisions about how openly to allow access to works, and Adobe is committed to offering the tools to support content protection and to working to increase the interoperability of DRM solutions. But we are also committed to supporting openly distributed, unencrypted content that can be deep-linked, mixed-in, and mashed-up. And I personally welcome publishers who, like Jim Baen, bravely experiment in a partnership of trust with their readers. Meantime I also want to soften the rought edges of DRM – when publishers deem it necessary at all – so it becomes more of a gentle reminder, a way to help “keep honest people honest”. Hackers will be able to crack any DRM, so in reality that’s the most that a rights holder can expect. iTunes DRM forexample, is a joke cryptographically. But as a user I have to intentionally decide to defeat it. If publishers and eBook sellers fairly price their wares I believe that most users will respect their licenses and that we can all increase our customer base and revenue.
Jim, I never had the pleasure of meeting you, but I thank you.

5 Responses to eBook pioneer Jim Baen, RIP

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  2. Ben Trafford says:

    “I also want to soften the rought edges of DRM…”
    Hear, hear! I agree with this entirely, Bill. Let’s face it — any DRM can and will be hacked. DRM should be like the Club — it deters your basic thief from stealing my car, but doesn’t stop me from driving.
    If more people could grasp this idea, we’d have a much happier world…and doubtlessly, a lot more ebooks on the digital shelves.
    It’s a real pity that big business seems to think that strong DRM is anything but a burden to customers. The strongest DRM gets hacked all the time — and at about the same speed as weak DRM. The only difference between the two is that one is a pain for the customer, and the other…is not.

  3. Deann Allen says:

    Mr. McCoy,
    Thank your for your kind words about Jim. His was, indeed, a pioneering spirit open to innovation.
    “If publishers and eBook sellers fairly price their wares I believe that most users will respect their licenses and that we can all increase our customer base and revenue.”
    That was at the heart of his innovations of the Free Library and Webscriptions. As someone who was in at the concept phase of Webscriptions, I helped set its original price point. I was also in on the discussion that later raised that price point by 50%. The ones who came up with the idea for the price increase, however, were those who bought only the electronic editions. During a discussion, they found out that the authors were making less from a Webscription sale than they did from a paperback sale. The ebook-only buyers thought this unfair, and further discussion settled on $15 per month versus the original $10.
    Even with this relatively heavy price increase, postings of Baen books by information-wants-to-be-free fanatics on “pirate” groups wound up with the poster being flamed for stealing from the only publisher who “got it.” To my knowledge, there was only one Baen book posting that wasn’t flamed. On the one-year anniversary of the launch of Webscriptions, someone flamboyantly announced that he’d cracked the Webscriptions DRM… and posted the book that had been up, in its entirety, as a free sample for the entire year.
    Jim was rolling on the floor laughing. Just as he’d grinned smugly when someone cross-posted an earlier “pirate” request for a Baen book and its reply, which boiled down to: “Buy the month, you cheapskate! You’ll get six for the cost of two paperbacks!”
    So you see, Mr. McCoy, you’re missing the point. Honest people do not need to be kept honest, and even “pirates” are willing to pay a fair price.
    An ebook, a music file, even a movie file — none are taken away by having someone read, listen to, or watch them. Electronic versions are not physical objects that can be stolen. For each person who samples them and decides they don’t like them enough to buy a copy, there is another, or many others, who do. Then you have the group who wouldn’t buy them anyway, either because of some i-w-t-b-f zealotry or lack of funds. In either case, no sale is lost. In the latter case, a future sale may be made when the person does have the funds. And in any case of a sale, the customer already knows he’ll be happy with the purchase, so you don’t wind up with someone who is angry about wasting his money on garbage and steers clear of any further such purchases.
    I don’t remember the name of the movie, but the sound-bite is “If you build it, they will come.” Jim built it. Sans DRM. They came. They continue to come. In droves.
    RIAA, MPAA, and others seem to think that if they build it with razor-wire fences, cattle chutes, vault doors worthy of Fort Knox, admission fees in line with the Superbowl, and collars complete with license tags, they’ll still come. Some will. A few. Most will just avoid it. Others will cut the fences, drill through the walls, lay shaped charges on the doors, and have a grand time costuming themselves and others with fake collars and tags.
    Honest people don’t like nasty, greedy ones. Hackers love them for feeding their obsession.
    Honest people do not need to be kept honest; they do that all on their own. All that DRM does is anger the honest ones and give the hackers a windmill to tilt at. Not to mention driving up the price to cover the costs of the DRM in the first place, which further angers the honest and inflames the imaginations of the hackers.
    Thus, DRM is a self-defeating proposition.

  4. Bill McCoy says:

    Ben,
    Well if you are 100% right: then all software should be shareware and all music, TV, and books should be available online. There may not be full-scale DRM, but even Baen’s Webscriptions shield the majority of the titles by restricting access to logged-in subscribers.
    Heck if people are as honest as you claim, then there should just be unmanned check-out stations at every grocery store.
    I think the reality is more situational. If you don’t make it clear to people that they are doing something wrong, and perhaps could face retribution, many (perhaps most) will “steal” to some degree, especially if the target is seen as a faceless corporation. Baen may have a particularly loyal and protective user base – but it’s highly doubtful that people would go to bat for global conglomerate Bertelsmann the same way.
    Again I agree with much of your sentiment – just not the absolutism.

  5. Deann Allen says:

    Mr. McCoy,
    I remember early copy protection, where you needed to type in word 5 from page 3 of your manual. Or more recent ones, where you need a CD key to install the program — although with the hacks that create them, even those cause problems. Witness the mess with Norton’s AV where just-purchased CDs had already had their keys hacked and registered, and the only recourse was to return the CD (opened and, thus, sometimes not returnable!) and get another one whose key might also have been hacked. Even Microsoft had a better plan in place for such situations.
    What infuriates people are the schemes that violate long-standing user rights, like copy-protection that prevents creating a backup copy. Couple that with the surcharge on all recordable media paid to companies of offset “losses” from illegal copying, and you wind up with people feeling ripped off and treated like criminals even when they’re being completely honest.
    Add in such patently obnoxious and intrusive garbage as MS demanding the right to snoop your computer and disable non-approved programs (which most read as “non-MS programs”), and you have the stage set for massive civil disobedience or outright revolt.
    Yes, my original reply was somewhat absolutist. I think it rather less absolutist than laws currently on the books (DMCA) and others that intellectual property companies have been and are agitating to have passed. Laws that presume criminal intent in all consumers and try to lock up everything under all conditions for all time.
    It should not be a crime, Mr. McCoy, to convert a legally purchased etext to a different format so you can put read on your PDA as well as your PC. It should not be a crime to exercise your legal right to create a backup copy of a program, or the implied license you’ve already paid for to make a copy of a music CD to put in your car. With today’s DRM and the DMCA, in many cases, it can be.