An American Editor

March 22, 2010

Misthinking DRM

A client asked me about DRM for his company’s publications. The discussion was about what I call lockdown DRM, which is difficult-to-remove DRM, and social DRM, which is relatively easy to remove. But the more I thought about the conversation and past conversations about DRM, the more I realized that the conversation was misthinking: The type of DRM doesn’t really matter, except to a few (relatively speaking) ebookers; what matters is the universality of the DRM.

Piracy also isn’t a foundational issue. The movie industry proves that no matter how successful your DRM scheme, digital media will be pirated. What really matters is the balance between universality of DRM and price. The more in equilibrium they are, the less piracy there will be; conversely, the more in disequilibrium they are, the more piracy will occur.

It’s a fact of life: There will always be thieves, pirates, crooks, just like there will always be wackos who want to set off a nuclear bomb. One can spend millions of dollars trying to keep ahead of the thieves or can recognize that wiping out thievery can only be done by wiping out humanity. Seems to me that the smart publishers will recognize the futility of their antitheft spending in an attempt to wholly eliminate piracy and instead work to make their product more attractive and universally accessible so that piracy will be minimized and marginalized.

And that’s where universal DRM comes into play. DRM is really a punishment meted out to the honest. It’s just like the local jail. Yes, we lock up the bad folk, but we don’t eliminate bad folk when we do so. What else happens? The honest folk pay and pay. The bad folk are confined, living off the largesse of the honest folk and the honest folk pay more of their honestly earned money to keep the bad folk confined, yet still live in fear of both the still free-roaming bad folk and the up-and-coming bad folk.

DRM is the ebook equivalent of the local jail. I recognize that I have to pay taxes to keep bad folk in jail. I may grumble about it, but I pay. And it does do some good in the sense that instead of there being 1,000 evildoers walking the streets of my community, there is some number fewer — but there is still a large number walking around. And when I buy an ebook I grumble about paying for the DRM but I recognize that the fault lies with the evildoers who force me to pay this tax.

Yet there is another layer of evildoer in the DRM world that doesn’t exist in the jail analogy: publishers who support multiple DRM schemes. May they be recognized by their satanic horns and by their begging of Amazon and Apple to sell their books!! Each DRM scheme publishers support costs money. The costs are passed on to me, the ebooker.

Although this DRM cost seems to be only pennies, it really is much more because I’m one of those honest folk and I’m paying for publishers’ DRM folly in multiple ways. When I buy an ebook at the Sony store, I can read the ebook on many different devices as is. I don’t need to know how to strip DRM nor do I have to break the law (and law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be forced to break the law by publishers). If I buy that same book at Barnes & Noble, I better own a nook, although it has been promised that sometime in the not-too-distant future I will be able to read the B&N ebook on as many devices as I can currently read a book bought at Sony. But that isn’t true of ebooks bought from Amazon or soon-to-be-bought from Apple — and apparently won’t be true any time in the foreseeable future.

Whose fault is this? It’s the publishers’ fault. They are mesmerized by Amazon’s current control of the ebook marketplace and by Apple’s control of the music marketplace. So they give in by doing nothing. What they should be doing is saying to Amazon and Apple and B&N and Sony and all ebooksellers that their ebooks can be sold only in X format with the Y DRM scheme — if you want to use some other format or DRM scheme, you can’t sell our ebooks! This is proconsumer and propublisher.

Does it matter whether Amazon, Apple, B&N, Sony, Smashwords, or some other ebookseller sells more ebooks than any other ebookseller? Should it matter to publishers? Not really. What should matter is that ebooks are being sold and the profits are going to the publishers and authors and the benefits to the consumer. As a consumer, I don’t care if Amazon and Apple collapse like a house of cards tomorrow — both companies are anticonsumer. And the way things are going with ebooks, I don’t care very much if Macmillan or Simon & Schuster or any other publisher collapses with them; publishers are also anticonsumer.

The misthinking about DRM is that it protects the publisher and therefore is beneficial to the consumer. The correct thinking is that DRM is a jail for the honest consumer and is anticonsumer in the absence of a single, universal DRM scheme that enables the consumer to buy from any ebookseller and read that book on any ebook reading device today, tomorrow, and 25 years from now.

Right now Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and publishers are able to ignore the consumer in the nascent ebook market. But the backlash is coming. If Amazon can’t sell ebooks for less than Apple or Sony or B&N, its dominance will not last. Once Kindlers realize that there is no financial benefit to being locked into a Kindle, they may look elsewhere — until they realize that they won’t be able to take their paid-for library with them. That will be the start of the tsunami that will engulf publishing, and when it comes, it will be a catastrophe for all players, not just for Amazon.

The time is ripe for publishers to realize that they can be and should be in the catbird seat on the issue of format and DRM. The switch to the anticonsumer agency model for pricing and the rumbling of consumer anger that it brings because of higher prices and no ebookseller competition should not be enhanced by a refusal to address the one issue that could put publishers in a favorable light: universal DRM. This issue should be addressed by publishers before the nascent ebook market becomes the dominant market for book sales. The backlash now will be like nothing compared to the backlash when the ebook market is even 10% of book sales. Ultimately, consumers will not sit idly by and accept that they cannot freely transfer books they purchased among devices they own. (And consumers will not swallow the lease vs. buy distinction with ebooks any more than they bought the distinction with DVDs — it is a distinction that has merit only in a court of law, not in a court of consumers.) The time to set the universal standards is now!


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