In a recent column in Publishers Weekly, Joe Wikert made the case for a unified e-book market and suggests that publishers consider getting rid of DRM, those digital pesky restrictions that, among other things, prevent you from easily taking your Kindle book collection over to a Nook.
He also references Steve Jobs’ famous letter to the music industry in which he plead that they get rid of DRM, which Jobs said doesn’t work and will not halt music piracy.
As a writer, reader, and former agent, I have to say: I really don’t have a problem with DRM. But it could be better.
Here’s the thing that the anti-DRM crowd rarely adequately acknowledges: It’s way too easy to e-mail your 1,000 closest friends a copy of a non-DRM e-book. Yeah, DRM can be cracked. Yeah, if someone really wants to pirate something they’re going to pirate it. Yeah, there’s nothing that’s ever going to stop piracy entirely.
But adding some basic restrictions on use of a file encourages average consumers to do the right thing. As long as those speed bumps are reasonable.
And to that end, here’s how I think a reasonable DRM policy should work:
Readers Should Have the Right to Transfer Their Libraries
This is the biggest injustice of DRM. If I buy an e-book on a Kindle I should be able to transfer it to a Nook. There should be an e-book reader Bill of Rights that compels e-booksellers to provide the means for a reader to read the e-books wherever they wish. If I want to move to another device or app or e-book program I should be able to do so.
This is obviously way more complicated than it sounds. Who is going to develop and maintain the conversions? Could e-booksellers agree on a universal format when Amazon in particular doesn’t have much of an incentive to open up their e-book ecosystem?
But someone needs to take leadership on this. It’s only fair that when you buy an e-book you have the right to read it wherever you want.
Readers Should Be Able to Access an E-book On Up to Six Devices
One of the greatest things about e-books is the ability to sync between devices. And allowing multiple devices simultaneously allow families to pool e-book collections as well. Six seems reasonable to me – an entire town shouldn’t be able to access a shared e-book account, but a family should be able to share an e-book.
Readers Should Be Able to Permanently Give Away an E-book
Done with an e-book and want to give it a friend? You should be able to e-mail it to a friend. Once they download it to their device it’s disabled on your device. Just like if you were giving away a physical book.
Other than that? The file is locked down. I can’t e-mail it to my friends. I can’t copy it endlessly. I’d have everything I need for legitimate home use and all the benefits of being able to choose my app ecosystem, and it would be a pain to do the wrong thing.
What do you think is fair when it comes to e-books?
I think DRM is a bad idea. At the end of the day, it only penalizes the person paying for the media, not the pirate. A person is better off pirating to avoid DRM than to pay for the file. They end up in a better place.
In other words, don't hurt the hand that feeds.
Matthew MacNish says
This is the kind of conversation I would have to have face to face, mostly because I've got too much to say, but also because some of my opinions about piracy and DRM are not popular.
Anyway, before I get any more cryptic, I'll just say that you make some excellent points, Nathan. I don't personally think DRM is the answer, but I do think you nailed it when you said reasonable is the key.
Jessica Lemmon says
AGREED ON ALL COUNTS!!! …now who do we write/call to make this happen?
(Copy from my blog)
DRM stands for "Digital Rights Management". It's a way by which publishers try and control the way the books (content) is used by customers after having being bought.
What it does, is attach the book the customer receives to his account, so that copies sent to someone not having access to the account won't be readable.
Problem is : the DRMs schemes are "cracked" as soon as implemented, and once cracked become inefficient for "determined" people.
It suffices that One person cracks a DRM method and discloses the crack for everybody knowing where to look to find the Crack.
It suffices that One person have access to the Crack and an ebook to rid the ebook copy of it's DRM.
It suffices that One person rids the copy of DRMs and puts it on the dark sides of the Net for the book to be "pirated".
Basically, against pirates, DRMs don't stand a chance.
Where they work is against "casual" copying : sending a copy to a friend (or a list of friends) or family member, making a "safety" copy…
Other than its inefficience against determined people, they have a few other drawbacks :
– It has a "hidden cost", as it needs dedicated software to be managed.
– DRMs forbid conversion to a different format, hence will disable readers not using a "format compatible" ereader to convert and read the book on their chosen software/hardware.
– Sometimes, due to software problems, legitimate customers loose access to the "protected" books they've bought.
– Sometimes, the DRM scheme depends on a service, and if that service is stopped, the customer looses his content. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management#Obsolescence)
– Sometimes, the a DRM is not attached to a user account, but also to a specific hardware, and in case of hardware failure, loose access to the content.
– Some customers choose (either due to past bad experience, or to ideological reasons) to not buy DRMed books, or at least use the DRMed status when deciding to buy or pass.
And the list goes on.
Some indie authors don't know about these drawbacks or think that enforcing their copyright is worth it, and that not many customers know about DRMs or care about it. These authors choose, as is their right, to enable DRMs.
Other authors think that casual copyright is benign enough or ensures visibility, or take into account some that DRMs are viewed by some customers as a drawback, and choose to disable DRMs.
It seems to me most indie/self-published authors have decided to not use DRMs, but again this decision seems to me completely personal or business.
A Journey to Balance says
I actually agree with leaving DRM in place. If I buy a physical book then I am paying 2-3X more for the book and with that additional money that is coming out of my pocket grants me the right to sell it to a friend or transfer ownership as I see fit. Since I am getting the same information much cheaper, then I have to be willing to agree with some of the restrictions that go along with it. If I want to transfer from Kindle to Nook, I fork out another $3.00. Come on.
I live overseas and I've noticed that DRM enforces geographical restrictions and people who can't legitimately buy a book are likely to pirate it, creating a culture of piracy and low prices which is hard to eradicate later.
Many people I know don't see pirating a book or film they can't buy as theft. The author lost the sale before the pirate copy was downloaded.
James Duckett says
You are correct on all counts. DRM protects nobody. Pirates (yaaarrrr) will get what they want and DRM only imposses restrictions on those doing the right thing.
I agree with your recommendations for e-books, but I am not sure recent court decisions are that reasonable. They seem to be pointing to eliminating restrictions and eroding copyright. It's quite possible we will lose control of printed books, which can be digitized, and e-books, which can be hacked and copied. This year or next may show whether authors will suffer the way musicians have. It may be up to publishers to figure this one out. Individual authors don't seem to have much power.