Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why DRM-Free eBooks Are a Very Good Thing

by Laurie K.

Tor/Forge announced today that they intend their ebooks to be completely DRM-free by July of this year. Upon hearing this, all of the tech heads and ebook early adopters did the Dance of Joy. The rest of the Internet went, "Uh, wut?" and wondered why we were rejoicing.

I'm here to break it down for you.

My friend Kim bought a book the other day. More precisely, she bought an iBook from Apple via the iTunes store, hoping to read it on her Mac Book. She thought, most sensibly, that if she bought it via iTunes, she could read it via iTunes and all would be well. Strangely, she couldn't make it work. When her husband told me about this, I was like, "Pshaw, this is surely user error!" (I expect both of them to shank me for that, by the way.) You can install iBook on your Mac, right? Uh, no, you can't, and don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.  She doesn't own an iPad or an iPod. She does have an iPhone but she didn't want to read it on that device.

For all practical purposes, Kim had purchased a book she could not read.

The iBook that Kim purchased is what is called a proprietary format. It means that it can only be used with a certain app and that app can only be installed on certain devices. This is a type of Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM software is supposed to be a way to keep media safe from piracy. Unfortunately, the scenario I described above is what DRM actually is - a corporation's way to keep users from using their media outside of specific and proprietary devices.

In a DRM-free world, Kim would be able to purchase her book on iTunes, and read it anywhere. Want to read on the Mac Book? Go for it. Need to switch to your Samsung Tablet? Copy that bad boy over. Can't put it down but have to pretend to pay attention to a meeting? Put it on your Windows phone and keep on trucking while pretending to take notes. Without DRM, that digital book you bought becomes something you can read on any device anywhere at any time. Which means you are consuming the content in the way you choose, which ultimately leads to you consuming more content. The easier things are, the more we do them.
Whenever this subject comes up, the other side of the coin inevitably gets brought up. What about piracy? Without DRM on our files, they will be distributed in torrents! No one will ever buy our books because everyone can just get them for free!

Here's a pro-tip: DRM has never stopped piracy. In fact, if you show your fancy new DRM algorithm to a pirate, he simply says, "Har!" and burns it to the ground. He's also likely to dance by the fire and paint his face with the ashes. I have never seen a user community more gleeful than when there's new DRM to bust. The more 'unbreakable' this DRM is purported to be, the happier it makes them to show The Man just how breakable it is. What's more, they then provide this break in an easily digestible format for less technical users. Right now, today, anyone can break the DRM on an ebook with minimal effort and simple, follow-the-numbers instructions.

As I've said before, there are two types of pirates: Those who wouldn't have paid for a product no matter what, and those who would love to buy a product but can't get it in a way they can easily consume it. In the case of the former, that's no sale lost - they never intended to buy a damn thing. In the case of the latter, this new policy translates to sales gained. I know a ton of those second types who are thrilled at this change. There's a sense of, "Hey, now that I won't be locked into a specific device or retailer, I can get in on this ebook thing!"

Rather than deterring piracy, DRM locks you into specific devices and screws the honest users like my buddy Kim. She bought a book and wants to read it on the device she prefers. If you make that easy for her, she'll buy more books and read them. More books bought equals more money spent which translates into more ability to fund book publishing and paying authors and all of that good stuff. If you make it hard for her to get the books on the device she prefers, she won't pirate things but she will buy less books. Less books bought equals less money spent which translates into less ability to fund book publishing and paying authors and all of that good stuff. Ultimately, less DRM is more money. It's nice to see one of the big dogs finally doing the proper math.
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  1. FYI, I don't have a copy of a book contract on my hard drive anymore but one of the issues for publishers is (has been) the clause that requires them to defend the copyright. Something like "take all necessary steps to protect the rights of the author" opens them up to serious liability the moment they post an unprotected copy of the file online. After all, if you're making it simple for people to distribute thousands of copies of the work without paying, how are you protecting the author's right to get paid? I think most of the big publishers are moving towards clarifying that clause in newer contracts and using their legal departments to fight illegal download sites, but the reason that publishers haven't gone DRM-free is not just that they like making life difficult. As long as they have DRM, they can say that they tried to defend the copyright, but without it -- well, what's their defense? Everyone else was doing it doesn't usually work in contract law. Eventually, it'll probably get fought out in the court system but no publisher really wants to be the one doing the fighting. Tor's probably betting that science fiction authors are a little more tech-savvy than the general author population and adaptable than mainstream authors. If it works for them, other publishers will definitely jump on the bandwagon. Probably with great relief. DRM is for the lawyers, not the publishers.

    1. Hmm, I never thought of that angle. It makes sense. "See? We're doing all we can!" Nevermind that it's more like plausible deniability than effective piracy deterrent, it still suffices as a contractual fulfillment.

      John Scalzi addressed that in a round-about way on his blog: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/04/24/torforge-to-go-drm-free-by-july-immediate-thoughts/

  2. Second to last paragraph could be replaced by this pic http://xkcd.com/488/

  3. @Wyndes

    As Laurie points out, DRM isn't actually providing any protection for the rights of the author. It only hurts the people who are actually putting their money up.

    I know it will be more difficult, especially with regard to contracts, but I hope they'll do something about silly region locking. Alastair Reynold's new book can be paid for in the UK right now, but North Americans have to either pirate it or sit on their hands.

    That can't be good for anyone.

    1. Region locking is superannoying but understandable. It has to do with the third party distributor. The distributor is only licensed to sell the property in a certain region and it's unfair if they're reaping the benefits from outside their area while the company with the legal claim to sell it is being shafted. However, I think it's crap if you're in England, for example, when you buy a DVD and then move to the States and can't play it on your new player.

    2. Hmm, let me try explaining it differently.

      The publisher has a contract with the author that requires the publisher to protect the author's copyright.

      Scenario A: The publisher distributes the book as an ebook with DRM. Bad people break the DRM and post the book for download. The author sues the publisher for all the royalties that he or she is due for the 1000s of illegally downloaded books. The publisher says, "We protected the books with DRM. Those books were stolen and we did our best to prevent the theft." The judge throws the case out of court.

      Scenario B: The publisher distributes the book as an ebook usable on any device, by anyone -- ie, no DRM. People pass the book around. Why not? When you own a paper book, you share it with your friends and family, why wouldn't you have the right to do the same with an ebook? Some of those people stick the book in their dropbox and let all their Facebook friends -- hundreds of people -- know that the book is there to be borrowed. The author sues the publisher for all the royalties lost because the author didn't protect the author's rights. The publisher's defense is "We hoped people would be good and understand that they shouldn't share their books." The judge agrees that the publishers are in violation of their contract and awards the author lots of money.

      I'm not saying DRM is effective, but it exists because publishers have a legal, contractual obligation to at least *try* to defend their authors' rights to earn money for their work. In the early days, most publishers wanted to opt for defending their authors' rights by not having ebooks at all. Even that didn't solve the piracy problem, because people would scan the books and distribute the scans. People will apparently always find ways to steal, but publishers do have an obligation to at least try to make it hard.

      As for the foreign distribution, I can't imagine how that one gets solved until paper is gone forever and even then, I'm not sure. In that case, it's all about the money -- who has to spend it and who earns it. Roughly, publishers (American) want their books to be in print internationally. Shipping costs are insane, so they need international companies with local printers to produce the books. But printing, storing, shipping and local marketing for paper books is expensive. Those companies don't want to lose all the ebook profits to the American company therefore. . . region locking. The scenario for the UK would be similar is my guess -- the UK company can't afford to print in the UK and ship to American or run an American branch to manage printing and shipping within the states, so they sell the foreign rights to an American company. The American company does the printing, etc. but for whatever reason, they're on a slower schedule than the UK company.

      None of this should be taken to imply that I like either DRM or region-locking. I don't. I just thought some explanation of the rationale behind the publishers' decision-making process might be interesting.

    3. Scalzi addresses this, which is to say that he talks about what Tor is doing to protect him and his published works, namely that their legal team is trolling (in the fishing sense) the interwebs and using the full smack-down of the law to stop big offenders. Not to be confused with Scalzi's mallet of loving correction.

      So when your hypothetical judge hears the case they can honestly say they're working to stop piracy

  4. Tangentially related, I saw a commercial for Wal-Mart's new "conversion" service last night and laughed my head off and got annoyed all at the same time. The company would have people hand over their DVDs they already own and, for a $2 or $5 fee, "convert" the DVD to a new format that allows them to stream it on any device. The thing is, they aren't converting crap. Wal-Mart simply confirms you own the DVD and then, if it's in the company's library, allows you to stream it on the device of your choosing. You have to pay more for something you already own to do something you could have done for free at home.

    This is total crap and it's why I'm stoked about the DRM-free policy change. I do not pirate books, movies, etc. If there's something I want, I either pay for it or wait for it to be available at the library/on Hulu/whatever. That being said, I believe, if you bought, you own it. You shouldn't be forced to only read it on just one device or prevented from making a copy of something if you've paid for it as long you're not distributing it/making money off of it.

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