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A Redshirt in the DRM Wars

Any fan of “Star Trek” knows the plight of the poor redshirt: an uncredited crew member, wearing a red Starfleet tunic, dies (typically in a horribly dramatic fashion) while being part of a landing party from the Enterprise. This TV trope is so famous in fandom that it inspired award-winning science-fiction writer John Scalzi to use it as the basis for his latest comic novel, “Redshirts,” which was published on 5 June 2012 in the United States. Interestingly, for those among us who buy ebooks, Tor Books, the publisher of “Redshirts,” recently announced that it would begin selling its ebooks without digital-rights management (DRM) protection.

Moreover, the day before the book’s release, Tor representatives, along with Scalzi and fellow authors Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, appeared at BookExpo America in New York to announce the opening of Tor’s own DRM-free ebook store later this year, and to reiterate that Tor’s ebooks would no longer be saddled with DRM.

Now here’s where irony leaps from the digital page into reality: “Redshirts” was supposed to be one of the first (possibly the first) of Tor’s titles to be sold without DRM. Yet, when my pre-ordered copy downloaded from Apple’s iBookstore on the day of release, it came with Apple’s FairPlay 2 DRM applied to it. Like the eponymous Enterprise crew member, “Redshirts” had been attacked without warning by an alien DRM-monster. And it was not just Apple in the role of the attacking alien: comments appearing on Scalzi’s popular blog, Whatever, made it clear that other vendors — including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony — had ignored Tor’s and Scalzi’s express wishes and slapped their own versions of DRM on the ebook. It was almost as though the Klingon High Council had declared war on DRM-free ebooks.

Fortunately, the Klingons were not to have their way. By the next morning, Scalzi had already posted an announcement that Tor intended to make good on its no-DRM plan, and, later the same day, he was able to announce that Tor would replace DRM-shackled copies of the ebook with unfettered versions. I can only imagine how embarrassed and angry he and the folks at Tor must have been.

In my case, I had already written to Apple’s customer support, so, before I took advantage of the Tor offer, I wanted to wait and see if Apple would respond in anything like a timely manner. And, surprisingly enough, Apple did: less than 24 hours after I filed my complaint, I was told that the price of my “unintentional” (Apple’s words) purchase of the DRM-wrapped ebook would be refunded. There was, of course, nothing unintentional on my part: I fully intended to buy the book; I just wanted to buy it as it was advertised, without DRM. The problem lay with Apple: Apple provides no way to tell if an ebook you purchase from the iBookstore will have DRM wrapping it until after you complete the purchase and take delivery. However, if Apple wants to soothe themselves by pretending that I screwed up, not them, I’m willing to play along.

Theoretically, of course, I can still take advantage of Tor’s offer anyway, and thus end up with a free copy of the book. However, I am going do the right thing and wait until the refund appears and then buy an unprotected copy, assuming such a thing appears in a timely fashion.

But I know what color my next shirt won’t be.


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Comments about A Redshirt in the DRM Wars
(Comments are closed.)

SSteve  2012-06-05 16:46
Thanks for the heads-up. I also preordered the book from Apple. I just sent the email asking for the DRM-free version.
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-05 16:49
For what it's worth, I'm enjoying the novel very much, no matter the Ferengi fire-drill aspect of this particular publishing episode.
SSteve  2012-06-06 16:13
I promptly got my DRM-free version from the Macmillan ebook team this morning.

Two weeks ago I had never heard of John Scalzi. But then Jonathan Coulton announced he did the theme song to Redshirts so I had to check it out. Then you post an article about the book. I guess I was meant to learn about this book! Good thing, too, because I'm loving it.
drcohen  2012-06-05 18:19
I don't believe that Apple currently has the process in place to distribute a DRM-free e-book. So, until they announce that they have such a capability, I just assume anything from them has DRM (and don't buy it if there is any alternative...with Bookle on my iMac and MacBook, I want the option of reading titles there as well).
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-05 20:04
On the contrary, iBookstore can and does deliver books without DRM. I have several.

Publishers can easily specify whether a book has DRM or not: in iTunes Producer, the application you use to submit books to the iBookstore, there is a DRM Free checkbox on the Rights & Pricing pane.
So, has Apple fixed the DRM snafu on the ebook or what? Should I just go to to buy Redshirts or what?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-06 11:33
No idea if they've fixed, and unless Tor or Apple announces it, no idea if you can rely on it being said to be “fixed.” I plan on waiting until Tor's DRM-free sales site launches next month.
Yeah, I decided not to risk it and went to Tor's site to discover their store's not up. Sigh. Is next month a hard date, or just an ETA?
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-06 12:28
Not to worry. If you DO get a DRM copy, John Scalzi offers these three steps on his blog (I link to this in the article):

1. Send a copy of your receipt to “” and specify if you prefer mobi (kindle) or epub (everything else) format.

2. They’ll send you a drm-free replacement copy in an email.

3. That’s it.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-06 14:52
And as much as I sort of hate to make work for some poor person, the more people who do this, the more they'll get the word that people want DRM-free books.
good point. Bought the book, just waiting on the iTunes receipt to show up in my email.
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-06 17:35
Check first, though, to see if the book has DRM or not. You can find that out in iTunes: unprotected books are listed as "purchased" books. On the iPad, if you select text in the book and see the option to copy, then the book doesn't have DRM.
Lewis Butler  2012-06-11 19:56
I can copy text out of the book, so yay!

Really enjoyed the book, too.
Just a small correction to this interesting article: the author mentioned in the text is Cory Doctorow, not Cary. I recommend you check out his work too. Most of his novels can bedownloaded free and without DRM from his site
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-11 17:17
Believe it or not, that is a genuine typo: I'm quite familiar with his work and really do know how to spell his name, even if my Mac doesn't. Fixed, though...and thanks.
Dennis B. Swaney  2012-06-12 10:37
I've been buying my e-books from Baen. I just bought the latest of Eric Flint's 1632 series, "1636: The Kremlin Games" from Baen for $6.00. Note that Baen is realistic on pricing their ebooks at less than what the paperback version will cost when it is released. This is unlike Amazon, B&N, and Apple who price ebooks only slightly less than hardbacks, and over twice the price of paperbacks. Hopefully Tom Doherty will follow the late Jim Baen's example of not being greedy.
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-12 12:21
The prices charged by Apple, Amazon, and B&N for most new books are set by the publishers, not the vendors.
Lewis Butler  2012-06-12 17:10
And the publishers, by and large, are charging obscene prices for ebooks for one simple reason, they can. That said, I applaud Tor for this move and it hunk in the end we will all win with no drm and lower prices.

Still, if I were writing a book, I'd be looking at selling it on amazon myself for like $2, as that would net me more than a book contract would.
Dennis B. Swaney  2012-06-16 12:53
Which is why I hope Tom Doherty, being a Publisher, will follow Jim's example.
SSteve  2012-06-12 12:17
I just got an email from Apple letting me know that a new version of the book without DRM is now available for me to download at no charge.
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-12 12:19
Same here, about five minutes ago. Nice to see.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-12 16:45
What's interesting about this is that someone must have thrown one heck of a fit at Apple to get them to contact customers. We would certainly like to contact our iBookstore customers when we release free updates, but there's no mechanism for doing this at all - when you buy from the iBookstore, you're Apple's customer, and the publisher knows nothing about you (and thus can't help you in any way).