Saturday, April 28, 2012

DRM, Greed, and a Deal With the Devil

Three days ago, Tor Books announced they were going to release their entire list of ebooks free of Digital Rights Management (DRM) come July, 2012. As Tor is a subsidiary label of Macmillan Books this certainly carries weight in the publishing industry in general. It is also an indication that Macmillan is probably using this as a test before releasing their entire portfolio free of DRM.
I feel it is only fair to point out that Baen Books, another major publisher of science fiction, has always published their ebook offerings DRM-free. They’ve been doing so for years, even before ebook readers became big!
Digital Rights Management is simply a method of keeping people from copying and using a computer file on another computer. This file could be a game, movie, music, or an ebook. Obviously, my focus here is on DRM and ebooks.
The argument for DRM is easy to understand and makes a valid point. Making a copy of a book requires an extraordinary amount of effort and time. One can either tear the book apart, feed the pages into a scanner and assemble those scans into a file that can be printed, or sit down and start typing. An ebook is a computer file and copying it requires less brain power than farting. Counterfeiting books and selling them overseas is already enough of a problem. I once saw a clearly counterfeited book. I almost bought it for no other reason than it made a good example of a counterfeit. It had a decent cover on it, but all the pages were essentially printed from an old copier. The pages had been stapled together and the cover was glued over it. A quick thumbing through the book showed that some of the pages were out of order. For an ebook, all you need is one file and you could sell perfect copies of that file in perpetuity.
Authors live or die by the number of copies of their books that sell. Authors aren’t paid by the hour or month or year. They are paid by a piece rate—by how many copies of their book sell. Any free copies floating around each represent a no sale.
If you consider things in that light, DRM seems like a good idea.
There are many more arguments against DRM which easily override the above.
One issue that stands out in my mind was driven by pure greed: Lock in.
Publishers were convinced that the moment they started selling ebooks, people would simply copy the files and spread them to all their friends for free, costing them sales. Without stopping to take a look at what was going on in the music industry, they all but demanded that Amazon.com apply DRM to any ebooks they sold.
Amazon.com was all too happy to comply.
What the publishing companies didn’t realize was they had just done the equivalent of signing a contract with the Devil. They handed lock in to Amazon.com on a silver platter, and with it the soul of their business.
To be fair, Amazon.com, Apple, and Barnes & Noble all left DRM to be the choice of the publisher, having a checkbox that had to be selected before pushing up the ebook. The publishing industry left to its naiveté, clicked the box. Only now are the publishers waking up to their mistake.
When you buy a book, in your mind you own that book.
The media companies have been trying very hard to change that notion of the average consumer. They want people to think of it as you only paid to license use of that book, not own it. Ever notice in the warning on any DVD movie, they say you are “licensed” to show that movie in the privacy of your own home? One of the provisions in both the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD specifications allowed the possibility that people would have to pay everytime they wanted to play the movie. This is one of the reasons why some Blu-Ray players have to be connected to the internet in order to play a movie.
A book (or DVD, or ePub file, etc.) is a container for the media within. When you buy that book, you own the container. You don’t own the story contained within. That means you can read it whenever you want, loan it to friends or put it on a table and sell it. You are selling the container. But, you don’t have permission to take the contents of that container and do something else with it, such as make a movie. In my mind, a data file is a container that holds the media within it. (Just to be clear, if you sell a book, then you no longer have possession of that book. Technically speaking, if you sell the computer file, you should delete it from your computer so you no longer have possession of it.)
Once you buy an ebook file, you should be able to read it on whatever device you own. Be it iPad, Kindle, Nook, cellphone, or computer, it should be your choice. Business people figured they could make more money if they forced consumers to buy a different file for each device.
Consumers aren’t that stupid. But it appeared that the publishing industry was.
Through the combination of DRM and proprietary file formats, the ebook reader manufacturers were trying to get customers locked into each their own platforms. The Kindle had a head start over all the others, and had gathered a lion’s share of the market. Then Amazon.com began to flex its muscle and force publishers into ebook pricing dictated by Amazon.com. Macmillan in particular tried to resist these demands, and Amazon.com delisted their titles from the listings, making them unavailable for purchase. This was the first proof publishers had that they had created a monster with Amazon.com. It’s been war ever since over the pricing of ebooks.
If DRM is no longer on a given ebook title, it becomes a trivial matter for a consumer to take an ebook in one file format and convert it to another that can be read by anything. This takes control away from Amazon.com and puts it back into the hands of the consumers. It does heighten the risk that the publishers will lose sales to people sharing files, but Apple’s iTunes has already shown that removing DRM from media has not dampened sales in the slightest. If anything, sales accelerated!
Baen Books (linked above) has long championed DRM-free books. They also offer a library of free books you can download in many of the different file formats for various ebook readers. Some of the titles offered are fairly recent as opposed to being out-of-print. If you enjoy science fiction, I strongly recommend you follow that link and peruse. While I have certainly pulled down a number of their free books, I have purchased more. There is a message to be carried to the publishing world!
I admit, I gave it long thought over whether or not to use DRM for the  impending release of my book, Nobody. While intellectually I rejected the use of DRM for many reasons, that nagging emotional fear over people being able to just take my book without any compensation to me still gnawed at me. Yet the evidence in the markets is clearly to the contrary! My own behavior of purchasing more books than taking those freely offered. Apple’s iTunes Music Store clearly shows people will still purchase music, rather than take pirated versions. I’ve come across anecdotes from other authors where people sent them money via PayPal to cover copies of their books that those readers had pulled down for free.
If there is one thing that holds true it is that the vast majority of people want to be honest! The evidence is showing that clearly. For that, I can allow my intellect to override and ignore the fear and just go with what I believe. My books will be DRM free.
The publishing industry should take pause and consider their greed. Writers have been handed a shiny new tool in ebooks that allows them to more easily than ever to self-publish. Keep squeezing writers hard enough on terms, they could slip away.
For the distributors who are putting the squeeze on the publishers, the same warning applies. Currently, many of the big publishers are behind the curve as far as marketing their products on the internet. That’s why Amazon.com has done so fantastically well. They took advantage of a great weakness that the publishing industry was ignoring. It really is not all that difficult to create an online store to sell your products. The publishers just haven’t figured that out yet.
Amazon.com’s only real advantage is that they conglomerate all the selections into one easy place. Any given publisher would only sell their particular lines.
The only way a deal with the Devil can keep you trapped is if the Devil can keep you from realizing you can just walk away from the deal.
The truth will set you DRM-free!