DRM: Read Free or Die!
Devavrat Purohit, Ph.D. Professor Faculty Faculty & Adjunct Effort firstname.lastname@example.org +1 919 660 8092(tel) +1 919 681 6245(fax) Address for interoffice mail: Devavrat Purohit, Ph.D. Box 90120
John Scalzi won't have to field any tough questions about how digital rights management software (DRM) works at tonight's book signing. The author—out on tour promoting his newest science fiction novel, "Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas"—says those difficult discussions popped up regularly when he engaged with his tech-savvy fan base in the past. But he doesn't expect any of that negative discourse at tonight's Boston-area signing event—or at any of the other scheduled stops on his current campaign to promote the New York Times bestseller.
Fortunately for Scalzi, the ebook version of "Redshirts" happens to not have any form of DRM of any kind whatsoever to talk about. It's Tor Books' first title released in the U.S. marketplace since the imprint announced that all of its electronic science fiction and fantasy offerings—including those in its forthcoming ebook store—would come without the anti-piracy software come July.
"DRM simply doesn't work," Scalzi says, expressing his personal feelings about the technology. "It doesn't matter what book of mine gets put out. It's immediately on the torrents. If you've actually purchased the book, you should be able to do anything you want—as long as you're not making a million copies and putting it on the Internet."
According to Scalzi, he requested that "Redshirts" be the first of Tor's titles to be released without DRM restrictions. Tor Books and Forge Books (both part of big-six publisher Macmillan) had announced in April that they'd be one of the first major publishers to make such a move. Scalzi says that DRM, rather than preventing the type of piracy feared by the industry, actually makes it harder on paying customers—like those he'll shake hands and chat with later in the evening. They just want to read what they buy in the ways they prefer, he says.
"[DRM] penalizes the people that aren't trying to screw you," Scalzi says. "The average person just wants to own the damn thing. Let them own the damn thing."
The Test Case
Just like an epic space conflict described in one of Scalzi's novels, the battle over DRM and ebooks rages far and wide throughout the publishing industry. At this year's Publishers Launch Conference (held in June during BookExpo America [BEA]), Scalzi was front and center. As one of three Tor Books novelists on stage, he stood before the industry attendees to rail against DRM during a session entitled "Taking the Plunge: DRM-free from a Big-Six Publisher."
Alongside Fritz Foy, Macmillan USA's EVP for Digital Publishing and Technology, Scalzi and his fellow Tor Books authors Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow explained the decision to a packed room of industry attendees. In fact, the topic of relaxing or removing requirements for DRM was such a hot one this year, the event showcased several additional panels focusing on the industry-wide debate.
At issue: the fundamental benefits of the three main formats of software—Adobe's ADEPT DRM, Apple's FairPlay DRM and Marlin Trust Management Organization (MTMO)—designed to prevent the piracy of digital ebook content. Do they actually prevent piracy or over-sharing, as they are intended to? Or do they ultimately hinder ownership for those who legally purchase content? Opponents say placing access-control technologies on digital content to limit its usage does nothing but penalize those who buy an electronic edition of a book.
Another perhaps even more controversial form of DRM is the ebook formatting—Mobipocket, Topaz, EPUB and PDF—that retailers and publishers currently employ. Essentially, the varying formats lock legally purchased content onto one retailer's platform and corresponding e-reader device, both of which ultimately will become obsolete as new technologies are introduced.
Foy says that he's patiently waiting to see the impact of Tor Books going DRM-free.
"I'll have a pretty good idea in three to six months," he says. "The size of our test case is so large with all of the Tor science fiction books."
What metrics will Foy be monitoring in the meantime? He says there are three key things he'll be keeping an eye on: the impact on piracy and enforcement; the impact on gross and net sales; and the impact on customer and author satisfaction.
"In some ways, all three are intimately linked," he says. "If we have a massive uptick in piracy, some may say we will have a downtick in sales."
First, he'll continue to monitor on a regular basis the number of titles that are up on the sites to which most pirates upload digital files.
"We have hundreds and sometimes thousands of takedowns a month," he says. "The files are there, and there's a high concentration of our best sellers."
Second, he'll keep an eye on backlist sales, which he feels are the real indicator of the continued strength in sales.
"It obviously has had some impact in sales," Foy says of pirating. "We certainty see it—we've been looking at this. But we have not seen in our trade area real stats that indicate that we're having the same massive impact that the recording industry had 10 years ago."
Third, he believes consumers like the idea of purchasing DRM-free titles, and authors appreciate a happy book reading public ready to buy more books.
"The author satisfaction situation is pretty easy to monitor," he says. "We have 2,700 active authors, and we're in regular communication with them. The consumer satisfaction will come more in the ongoing dialogue we're having with our readers. Inoperability is becoming an issue. They don't want to be involved in a closed ecosystem."
"They'll Be Stunned"
At the end of the day, should there be any difference between what you can do with an ebook and what you can do with its physical forebear? Joe Wikert says there shouldn't. The general manager and publisher of O'Reilly Media says it's a quiet problem that readers haven't realized will impact them—and the industry as a whole—down the road.
"They're building libraries and they don't quite realize what they're locking themselves into," he says of customers. "As the market evolves, they'll be stunned."
Wikert took these sentiments—ones he's been sharing on his personal blog, Publishing 2020 (jwikert.typepad.com), for the past several years—onto the BEA stage this year, too. His standpoint: DRM does not prevent piracy and hinders further development of better and richer content.
"The fundamental belief at O'Reilly is that we want to trust our customers," he says. "There is no level of DRM that implies customer trust."
Why does he take the time and effort to be so publicly outspoken? Wikert says publishers, especially the biggest players in the U.S. market—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster—are moving at a "snail's pace" when it comes to abolishing most forms of DRM from their titles.
"Publishers still fear piracy," he says. "They're scared to death about it—but they refuse to see DRM isn't a solution. They don't want to lose control, so they cling to DRM."
Wikert says it's hard to say where the industry is in the resolution of the ebook-DRM debate, despite all the recent chatter on the topic. He believes the end of DRM is imminent, but vocal opposition is needed to convert the skeptics.
"The market is not going to get there on its own," he says. "I keep thinking we're almost there. I think it'll be just another six months. And then six months go by and another six months go by."
Wikert points to the music business' industry-wide resolve to do away with the software over the past few years. He says he switched smart phones last year—from an Apple iPhone to an Android-powered model—and had a much different experience when faced with changing e-readers. The collection of books on his Kindle Touch couldn't be transferred over to his new NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight.
"When I did that I had several gigs worth of music," he says of the phone switch. "I just went into my Mac and dragged it from one file to another. Boom—all my music was there [on the new phone]. Good luck today doing that with your books. We have to get there someday."
"A level of frustration for those who have no intentions of stealing"
Last year, a team from Duke University and Rice University took a closer look together into whether or not DRM worked as it was intended. When published last October, their study—entitled "Music Downloads and the Flip Side of Digital Rights Management"—not only shined a new light on the topic for the music business, but for all industries currently using the software.
The team's conclusion: Dropping DRM restrictions leads to decreased piracy.
It all comes down to competition, the researchers say. The competition between legal digital downloads and traditional retailers selling a physical product helped reduce prices. Devavrat Purohit co-authored the Duke and Rice study. A professor of Business Administration at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, Purohit says book publishing is still several steps behind where they saw the music industry during their study. Publishers have yet to fully understand the role DRM plays for their customers, he says, but can learn much from the music industry even though, as he says, e-readers "haven't been adopted on a large scale like they were with music players."
According to the study, the Recording Industry Association of America reports global piracy of music costs the industry $12.5 billion in losses annually. The illegal downloading of music helped contribute to a 50 percent decline in CD sales. (Current estimates put book pirating at about 10 percent of the books that are read—which had cost U.S. publishers nearly $3 billion when the stats were released in 2010 by Attributor, a vendor that offers anti-piracy and content monitoring technology.)
Despite these staggering statistics, Purohit says the labels that are removing DRM are seeing higher sales when consumers are presented with music files that can be played on any player. Preyas S. Desai, another of the study's authors, says the paper's finding that music DRM only impacted paying customers translates to other information goods, including ebooks.
"If people want to break DRM of any kind, they will," Desai says. "Putting the DRM on causes so many inconveniences to the legal users. There's a level of frustration for those who have no intentions of stealing. To prevent people from stealing, [DRM] put restrictions on the items. Those restrictions in a sense hurt the legal users that won't be doing something illegal anyway. It has an effect in some of the ways we see books being consumed, too."
Breaking the Curse
DRM is not just a question facing the U.S.-based trade. Arguably, the epicenter of this recent round of discussion falls somewhere within the London office of Pottermore. The individual certainly most responsible for kicking it off—author J.K. Rowling.
When Rowling's Pottermore—the website developed as the online home of the Harry Potter franchise—announced this past March that the series would finally be released in an electronic format, it stipulated that it would be done without heavyweight DRM software. Instead, a user-specific watermark would be embedded with the purchaser's name and the time of purchase in the ebook itself.
After reading the news, Matteo Berlucchi, CEO of the London-based aNobii, an online reading community similar to the U.S.'s Goodreads, hopped onto his Twitter account immediately to express his feelings. The outspoken anti-DRM advocate didn't mince his words:
"Pottermore breaks the DRM taboo. The demise of DRM is now irreversible."
Granted, it only took 42 hours for the first copies of these new official ebook versions of the most pirated books in history to begin appearing in BitTorrent form for illegal sharing. Despite that news, Berlucchi, whose virtual book club is backed by HMV Group, HarperCollins, Penguin and The Random House Group, says he believes more publishers and retailers will follow suit.
"I think they simply belong to the camp that believes that DRM does not prevent piracy," he says of Pottermore. "According to Charlie Redmayne—their CEO—they have noticed a drop in the number of pirated Harry Potter ebooks soon after the launch of Pottermore. The last hurdle is to be able to demonstrate that the link between DRM and piracy does not exist, or better [that] it has negative effect."
Berlucchi sees differences between past conversations regarding DRM for music content and what's happening in book publishing: "The main differences, which I believe make the anti-DRM argument for books even more powerful, are the type of customers—youngsters for music and more grown up for ebooks—and the limited ability to spend time reading. There is no attractiveness in having a large free library because you will not have much time to read above and beyond what you already do. With music, the more the better because listening to music is something you do in the background."
Berlucchi believes the U.K. will move quicker in shifting away from ebook DRM, not because of the inconvenience to readers, but mainly because of the impact it may have on less significant players, including smaller publishers and independent retailers. The triad of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple duking it out in the retail sector is missing one key component in the UK—the large physical bookseller that also dabbles in electronic sales.
"The main difference in the UK is the lack of a Barnes & Noble equivalent," he says. "This gives near-monopoly status to Amazon. I believe this unbalance will push publishers to do something radical—like dropping DRM—more quickly than in the U.S."
The Case For
As a consumer, Bill McCoy is not a fan of DRM.
"It gets in my way and I do not like it," says McCoy, a former executive of ebooks at Adobe and currently the executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). However, completely ridding the industry of all DRM is not a practical way of resolving the matter, he says, since most authors and publishers continue to insist on it. There should be some compromise and some experimentation on the DRM issue, and that's just what DRM expert Bill Rosenblatt proposed at a session at IDPF's Digital Book 2012, which was held in conjunction with this year's BEA.
"I think a DRM-free world would be great," McCoy says. "I respect Joe [Wikert] and others who aspire to that. I just don't think we're going to get there. We're at best going to get the DVD situation, and at worst ebooks will be locked in to vendor-specific silos and thus not interoperable for consumers."
What he means by "the DVD situation" is a lightweight, but broadly adopted format for ebook DRM that crosses over all publishers and retailers, something similar to the Content Scrambling System (CSS) that the DVD Forum, an international organization created to develop the DVD format, created back in the mid-1990s.
According to McCoy, an interoperable cross-platform ebook DRM standard may be the best speed bump to pirating. Like what occurred with the DVD format, it would not make illegal copying impossible. It would, however, make it somewhat more difficult for the average person to have to download illegal software and learn how the process worked.
"It seems to me to be perfectly reasonable that publishers want to protect their content the way the game developers and software makers and movie studios do—where DRM is still utilized," he says. "Who are we to say you can't do it?"
McCoy says the conversation of DRM should be more nuanced, too. Not routinely spoken of, he says, are the less black-and-white situations. Do away with applying a form of DRM on copies of ebooks, including those sold to public libraries in order to control the lending period? How about textbooks? What should be done in these situations?
"There's an idea that this is evil stuff," he says. "But it's sort of like selling bike locks. We're not proposing everyone has to lock up their bikes with big chains. But we think if you're going to lock it up it'll be a deterrent to casual theft. So, I think it's a little misleading to say that music has done away with DRM and therefore let's get on with it on ebooks. We'll look back and see DRM wasn't the point. The point was creating compelling experiences that were engaging for readers."
The Road Forward
It remains to be seen where the industry goes from here, and whether recent announcements and the current banter are the final tipping point that lead in a different direction, one in which DRM is retired. Are we looking at a possible scenario where everyone in the business unites to form a standard DRM to blanket publishing so that everyone can sleep better? Or is there no end in sight, and it turns out to be just more noise from an industry still grappling to fully understand what it takes to do business digitally?
Scalzi says Tor Books redirecting the enforcement of copyright away from a software technology and putting it in the hands of a team of lawyers is the smart move, one the industry will be watching as it works out those questions.
"We still believe [Tor Books] is going to follow all legal avenues to make sure people aren't violating," he says. "That's how they'll be protecting copyrights. They'll be taking that stuff down. That's part of a publisher's job. As long as there's a robust response to piracy, the publishers are still doing their job."
The future on DRM for ebooks is not yet written. And even if it were, Scalzi thinks most of the reading public he'll meet out on the road tonight wouldn't know if that particular story included talk of software that protected copyright or not.
"For good or bad, most people just don't care about these bigger issues," he says. "When someone buys something, they're not sitting there thinking about these deeper thoughts. They're thinking, 'This is a cool book. I wish I had it on my Kindle.' These are the sorts of things that people in publishing and people who are sitting in the tiny minority that is arguing about [DRM] don't see." BB
Peter Beisser is a regular contributor to Book Business. He previously was managing editor of several North American Publishing Co. titles and has written extensively about the publishing industry. He wrote Book Business' Printers' Outlook feature in the March/April issue. Despite his ongoing fascination with new technology, he will fall asleep tonight reading a paperback.