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Here’s a podcast of my last Publishers Weekly column, Digital Lysenkoism :

Talking with the lower echelon employees of publishing reminds me of a description I once read about the mutual embarrassment of Western and Soviet biologists when they talked about genetics. Soviet-era scientists were required, on pain of imprisonment, to endorse Lysenkoism, a discredited theory of inheritance favored by Stalin for ideological reasons. Lysenko believed, incorrectly, that you could create heritable characteristics by changing a parent organism—that is, if you cut off one of a frog’s legs, a certain number of its offspring would be born with three legs.

Lysenkoism was a disaster. When it was applied to food cultivation it led to ghastly famines that killed millions. So, when Soviet scientists met their Western counterparts, everyone knew that Lysenkoism was an awful absurdity. But the Soviet scientists had to pretend it wasn’t. Not unlike some of the discussions inside today’s major publishing houses when it comes to DRM.

I recently solicited several writers for inclusion in the Humble E-book Bundle, for which I’m acting as a volunteer editor. The Humble E-book Bundle is the first foray into e-books by the Humble Indie Bundle project, a nonprofit that has run several insanely successful video-game distribution events in which customers got to name their own prices for a collection of independent, DRM-free games. Each of the Humble Indie Bundle projects so far has grossed around a million dollars and has made hundreds of thousands of dollars for each contributor . And I’ve recruited enthusiastic contributors from all of the big six publishers for the Humble E-Book Bundle—that is, all except one, which has an all-DRM-all-the-time policy and won’t consider publishing anything without DRM in any of its divisions.

Mastering by John Taylor Williams: wryneckstudio@gmail.com

John Taylor Williams is a full-time self-employed audio engineer, producer, composer, and sound designer. In his free time, he makes beer, jewelry, odd musical instruments and furniture. He likes to meditate, to read and to cook.

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2 Responses to “Digital Lysenkoism”

  1. Roger Davies

    It would be an interesting experiment to clearly quantify the economic loss due to it’s addiction to DRM.

  2. TechTropes - Matt

    I agree with everything that you are saying, especially with regard to the sheer impossibility of trying to apply DRM to something that can easily be reduced to a text file.

    The thing is…

    I know too many people who lend the lie to much of the stuff I would like to be able to say about DRM.

    Who have settled into the “all big corporations are evil” mantra, especially when it justifies them getting free stuff. Who are still buying stuff when pirating it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Who, if faced with an entirely DRM-free e-reader file, would immediately send it to all their friends, pretty much out of spite.

    To be fair, I don’t think this is really representative of many of those who are campaigning for copyright reform (it sure as hell needs reforming), but it is frustratingly descriptive of the vast majority of people I know who actually pirate stuff.

    The big publishers are especially fucked, because if they do make concessions, then this is never going to be enough for them to stop being seen as a “big evil corporation”, and therefore fair game.

    All too often now “this is a battle you can’t win” is coming up in the context of advice on DRM, and it’s often good tactical advice, but it makes for a pretty dubious long term strategy, especially when you consider which way the demographics in question are shifting.

    Copyright represents the most epic public relations failure in history. We should generally, if grudgingly support the copyright holders on principle, but instead we somehow find ourselves with a general public consensus that is most in favour of Captain Planet swooping down to stop them.

    It’s clear that this has happened because some of the copyright holders have been greedy jerks who are chasing their own agenda.

    I don’t think we can afford to ignore the fact that there is no shortage of self serving greedy jerks on this side of the argument as well, especially cosidering the damage they do to everyone else’s credibility.

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