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« This Could Be Huge - Tor Dumps DRM | Main | SCOTUS Grants Cert for Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley »

April 25, 2012

Why Break/Abandon DRM

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Yesterday, when I linked to Charles Stross's later entry I should also have linked back to his earlier piece "What Amazon's ebook strategy means". This piece, published earlier this month, forthrightly declared that "DRM on ebooks is dead."

Stross has been careful to state that he had no insider view that Tom Doherty Associates - the publishers who put out the Tor, Forge, and other lines of books - were going to make a big move to drop DRM. But even without that knowledge, Stross put together what he saw as the business case for getting rid of DRM. Long-time readers here will know that I am a big fan of the creators should get paid viewpoint, but that we also share the view put forth by people like Cory Doctorow that the actual business effect of DRM is not to control illegal copying, but rather to hand the manufacturers of ebook readers a stranglehold on everyone and everything.

It's not going to surprise any of my readers that Stross concludes that the only way to break Amazon's stranglehold is to drop DRM. In a DRM-free world, you can buy a book that is readable on a Kindle and on a Nook and on an iPad. Thus, it doesn't matter if you buy that book from Amazon. It may be the case that Amazon offers you a discount, or a frequent-buyer program, or some other incentive. The publishers can't guarantee that Amazon won't be able to dominate the market by virtue of its strong competitive position, wide inventory of products, and other advantages. What they can guarantee is that their readers will no longer be locked into a Kindle.

Although Stross doesn't say this directly, I feel this also opens up a world of other direct-sale opportunities for publishers. I mentioned Emily Books a couple weeks back, who are trying to operate as independents. In a DRM-free world there's no reason that a big-name publisher can't do a deal with Emily Books or any of a thousand other small, high-value, curated ebook outfits. Get DRM-free versions of Emily Books on every device, with a publisher like Tom Doherty Associates lending its marketing and mass distribution expertise and getting a cut of the profits. I can think up at least six more profitable-to-the-publisher ways to build business in a DRM-free work. Stross's piece claims that dropping DRM won't lead to immediate revenue gains, but I think that's true only if you consider going DRM-free as a stand-alone action rather than part of a comprehensive business strategy.

I was also amused to see that Stross also predicts the demise of the dedicated e-reader, given that most people I talk to think I'm nuts when I say that. He's more generous than I was, giving the stand-alone reader "2-3 years possibly, 5 years probably" where I think that by this time next year everyone will be talking about the decline of the device as tablets ascend.

Lastly, I wanted to bring to your attention a fascinating piece that appeared yesterday on PaidContent, '"Why I break DRM on e-books”: A publishing exec speaks out.' In this column, Laura Hazard Owen tells the story of one (obviously anonymous) executive from the publishing industry whom she introduced to the common practice of unlocking a purchased book so it can be read anywhere.

Exec, as she dubs her story protagonist, admits to being influenced by Stross's writing. Exec realized that s/he had no control over the ability to do perfectly legal things with purchased ebooks. Exec isn't sharing the cracked books with anyone, let alone putting them out for general downloading. Exec just wants to be able to read the stuff, and has figured out that the sole purpose of DRM is to control the consumer. Sadly, even though Exec admits to a decision to break every DRMed ebook from now on it doesn't appear that Exec will do anything to change stupid corporate policies that put the DRM there in the first place.

Still, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right? Maybe we should set up a 12-step program for all the members of the Cartel who are addicted to DRM.

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