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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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