DRM and the eBook Future

It’s not very cool to argue in favour of DRM (digital rights management – basically systems that attempt to stop you copying digital files). The hip libertarian view is that it is an infringement of human rights, a restriction on the spread of art and ideas, an imposition by corporate culture on the freedom of the individual and the criminalisation of innocent youth.  A curious shift in logic marks out what is sometimes called the “freetard” position; because it hard to control (and impossible to eliminate) file sharing, trying to control it is some regressive and oppressive act that contravenes an inherent digital right (“information wants to be free”). A more traditional, conservative take on the anti-DRM position is based on the rights of the paying consumer – ‘I’ve bought this product, and I’ll do what the hell I like with it’. (This is a particularly American stance, which also posits that the very idea of DRM assumes that people are, by nature, thieves. But then it takes a certain sort of rich and moralistic consumer culture to expect people to willingly pay for something that is available free).

The case for the other side has been made many times and it’s a very simple one: look what happened to the music industry. With the indefatigable rise of the ebook, isn’t it likely a similar fate awaits the book world? A whole generation has grown up expecting music to be free; if you want to get a sense of the monetary value of e-literature have a look on eBay where one seller is offering “150+ New York Times Best Sellers” for £3.95 and another “200,000+ books” on DVD for £3.30. But that’s already too much; just Google your favourite author and the words ‘ebook’ and ‘torrent’ and you can get it all for free.

On both sides some surprisingly naive notions reign –

–  That we can stop people downloading, just like we can ‘win’ the ‘war on drugs’

–  That people will pay for something they can get easily for nothing

–  That writers can make their money from live performances and give their work away free

–  That you can guilt-trip a young person into giving up their cash to show-biz multinationals

–  That free ebooks will promote the paper versions

–  That there is some tangible, measurable, marketable or moral difference between a digital original and its copy

The Kindle has been a surprising success. The proprietary system is slick and persuasive enough that the average reader is not tempted to search for free downloads (a delicate balance that could easily shift). As you can produce an ebook at minimal production cost it has been a boon to the independent/self-published author, although the great irony of the ‘democratisation’ of publishing continues – the easier it is to publish, the greater the competition you face. As the number of ebooks available increases at an exponential rate one can imagine many readers wanting to retreat back to known brands of author and publisher. There is a pressure on new authors in particular to offer their books cheap or even free (the latter is, I think, a trend to be resisted, even as a promotional tool – giving lots of free downloads is one thing, getting them read is another).

But already people object to DRM on the Kindle, arguing that one of the great advantages of the book is that you can (and, indeed, should) lend it on to others, whereas the Kindle book is tied to its one owner. Some kind of sharing/passing on protocol is a reasonable thing to argue for the eBook, but that there is a sort of ‘moral right to copy’ to match the passing-on property of the book misrepresents the situation; if books could not just be loaned but copied perfectly, at no cost, with no wear, an unlimited number of times, there would never have been a publishing industry at all.

My real concern is that in a unfettered free-for-all future, it is the big, established interests who will win. If books and music are all delivered for free, financing will come through product placement, sponsorship and market research, and art and media will be inseparable from advertising and celebrity culture. The big names will promote other big names and pay them handsomely for it, everyone else will work for free, minority interests will become marginalised. Maybe we’re close to that state already.

What’s left of the music industry still makes the majority of its money from CD’s, not downloads, and there are a variety reasons why people still buy CD’s (few of which apply to ebooks). Some people still actually don’t know how to download music, others have a collector’s attachment to the physical form or have good enough sound systems to tell the difference between an uncompressed track and an .mp3 (although as high bitrate downloads become commonplace, that distinction disappears). Others like to keep the CD as a sort of master archive, to return to when their hard disc or iPod crashes. But this is a transitional period; the idea of paying for music may laughable to subsequent generations.

Unlike the music industry, Amazon saw the rise of the ebook as an opportunity rather than a threat. It is so easy to buy a Kindle book legitimately that many are never even going to consider an alternative. But these are early days, and I still see the Kindle as an interim device, crippled by limited fonts, monochrome and the inability to display web pages and moving images. It’s like a computer for book lovers who haven’t seen a computer screen for twenty years and it will maintain its place in the market only while the cost and weight of the iPad and its rivals appear prohibitive. Perhaps. Maybe the paper-based book will carry on for years to come coexisting with the ereader – its particular qualities and advantages are not just a matter of sentimentality. Which ever way it goes, more and more books are going to be bought in digital form.

So between the devil of draconian DRM control and the deep blue sea of unlimited, uncopyrighted free everything, what do we have? As readers and writers, what do we argue for?

We will never eliminate file sharing, but we can make buying ebooks as appealing as possible. Part of this I believe involves maintaining DRM to make the alternative less palatable,  a hassle for all but the geeks, but the positives for the ‘legitimate’ route are crucial. Ebooks need to be available quickly, easily and cheaply.  As much of the cover price as possible needs to be returned to the author, in fact in many cases the author will be the publisher, and the book industry will function mostly as a marketing service. There should be a finite way of ‘gifting’ an ebook to others so we can share our read and a system that would fit a new form of public library. The process of buying an ebook should also connect to a stream of further information about the work and the author and other readers. Beyond that there needs to be a filtering system to supersede the old model of agent/publisher/newspaper critic/bookseller. There needs to be a new form of adventurous publisher, with an astute sense of both what is good and what people might want, who can build up trust on both sides. And, crucially, we must maintain the sense of value of a book, a value not based on status, fashion or brand, but on the ideas within it.

Of course, we don’t know how the novel, a form that reached its peak of sophistication in the early 20th century, is going to survive all this. Will it evolve, to a new form tailored to new digital devices? Will most novels become, to some extent, graphic? Or will the old formula of paper, cardboard and ink gain regain its value, and the Kindle become a forgotten aberration of the age, like the TV dinner or the nylon shirt?

Roland Denning, April 2011

Roland Denning is a writer and film maker based in London. His novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, is available in a revised ‘austerity edition’ exclusively on Kindle.

  • As both an independent author trying to sell books and an editor for a traditional publishing company, and as an occasional pirate in private life myself, the dilemma of “to download or not to download” is one that I am all too familiar with…

    One duty assigned to me by my employers involves working as a DMCA-enforcing anti-piracy operative, sending out copyright infringement notices (or “nast-o-grams” as we call them) to all those pirates out there with the audacity to copy our books illegally and offer them up for download online. Only my company doesn’t publish ebooks – these determined fellows in India and Saudi Arabia will take an entire 1,000 page book of ours and manually scan each page into a
    compressed PDF file for dissemination to the furthest corners of the web. Part of my paycheck is earned in fighting this losing battle wherever the front arrives, but regardless of how I feel about such piracy personally, I’m almost inclined to think that you’ve earned your copy if you’ve gone to all that!

    Needless to say, it’s a complex issue and there are no easy answers, as Roland’s article so astutely explains.

    Neil Gaiman recently came out in at least partial support of the online piracy of his own books, because he felt that it was ultimately helping his sales in previously untapped markets (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Qkyt1wXNlI). I suppose that’s easy to say if you’re Neil friggin’ Gaiman, who could easily become the British equivalent to Stephen King in terms of sales (if he’d only churn out more best-selling rehashes of previous work), but for the unknown author who becomes elated each time someone they do not know/are not related to makes a purchase, the prospect of piracy is probably felt somewhat more acutely – for better or worse.

    As mentioned above, Neil Gaiman and other authors of his caliber may not mind a bit of illegal downloading here and there, because chances are they already have enough devoted fans willing to pay for their product anyway, and are financially stable enough that they will continue to prosper regardless. On the other hand, for unknown authors who strive so hard just to get their miniscule slice of pie, losing sales revenue to the multitudes of cheapskates out there could mean the difference between making the rent or not next month.

    And yet, without the exposure bought through agents and advertisers, many no-name authors (myself included) will often resort to giving their books away for free (saving pirates the trouble) in an effort to garner exposure for and profits from their other books languishing on the market. It is hard for me to imagine my own books being illegally downloaded on any massive scale, but I don’t mind telling you that it probably wouldn’t hurt my already abysmal profits too much! If
    anything, I’d probably start to notice quite a jump in sales of my other titles, if the results of the small-scale giveaway I’m currently conducting for Editorial are any barometer…

    It could well be that Mr. Gaiman and others of his ilk are onto something with some of their “freetarded” ideas, but Roland is right to warn us of where those waters could take us if the floodgates are ever opened fully.

    • Hi Arthur,
      My complements on a well thought out response to the article. I am writing you because you describe a problem of the independant author/self-publisher that I try to solve. In other words you are in my target market (I run a DRM service). So yes, this is a bit of marketing on my part, but I would like to know if you have tried any PDF protection solutions and what your thoughts are on them.

      • John –

        I’ve not tried any PDF protection services myself, and though I certainly appreciate your consideration, I should tell you right now that I have no interest in utilizing them personally. As you can probably deduce from my response to Roland’s post, I suspect that unknown authors may making a grave mistake by being overly protective of their rights, especially when their primary concern should be building an audience, and there are SO many uninitiated readers out there who need nothing so much as a free hit to get them hooked on your product….

        While I realize that this philosophy involves trading off a certain measure of control, and that this may be inviting disaster to the unwary, for an unknown author with very limited readership to begin with, allowing this kind of proliferation (at least for a time) may hold some distinct advantages to paying for adverts instead.

        While I’m not currently in the market for your type of service, I’ll certainly keep you in mind for a later date when my books come into great demand — though don’t hold your breath! In any case, as it would be fitting to the discussion, I’d be interested in hearing your counterargument regardless.

        – AG

        • Arthur –

          Thanks for responding. I get a lot of benefit from an author’s perspective. The DRM debate will go on but here’s my take on it.

          I think its a balancing act. Too much DRM may turn off new readers. Not enough and your business perhaps cannot survive. DRM is successful when your paying consumers aren’t bothered by it’s presence while making it difficult for anyone with the intent to copy your work.

          It seems to me that each author needs to think about what constitues ‘overly protective’ for their situation. Too much security for me may not be enough for you. For example, you may sell how-to ebooks or technical manuals in an industry with competitors who won’t hesitate to pirate your work or post it on a torrent site. If so, you probably should think about a DRM solution that protects against file sharing, screen captures, printing and be able to revoke those permissions after the ebook has been sold.

          If I write romance novels aimed at adults over 40, my audience is probably less likely to file share so a lighter form of DRM may be appropriate (allow readers to give the ebook away 3 times, allow unlimited prints) Even the author who is trying to build this type of an audience can use a strategy where they give away the first few chapters of their book and protect the rest.

          Authors selling a very small number of ebooks (or selling a very large number and can therefore absorb the loss), may not be concerned with DRM. But for those whose livelihood depends on every sale, DRM (in the right measure) can protect their livelihoods.

          Good luck, Arthur, and definitely look me up when when your ebooks are in great demand!

          • Thanks for the excellent counterpoints, John. I’ll make certain to take all that into consideration as I plot my own way forward.

  • Indeed, Arthur. Radiohead can afford to do a “pay whatever you wish” deal on an album and still make many millions from physical sales, specially packaged souvenir editions and live shows. Giving away something for free as a promotional device is fine is there is something income-generating to promote.

    But, as I said above, I don’t think guilt-tripping into paying for what they can get easily for free is ever going to work. RIghtly or wrongly, most of us would have qualms about stealing a computer, but don’t feel the same way about ‘borrowed’ software.

    Downloading just doesn’t feel like stealing; but we seem ready to pay for physical objects even though the manufacturing cost of a book or a CD may be only 10% of its cover price. We have always paid for ‘intellectual proper’ whether it felt like it or not.

  • David

    Good article… this one also has an interesting take on the subject: