The production and distribution of digital content in today’s digital age is often seen as creating an inescapable tension between publishers and the public. As consumers become accustomed to gaining free access and sharing capabilities with online content, publishers become increasingly dependant on Digital Rights Management software to protect themselves and their bottom lines. DRM is meant to prevent copying and sharing of eBook content, and as such, is touted as being vital to publishing’s online survival. In this essay, however, I will argue that this is simply not the case. Rather, I will show that not only is DRM on eBooks ineffective, it is also potentially unnecessary and damaging to nearly every player in the publishing world.
DRM is at its core “the digital watermark used for copyright protection of digital media” (Howell, Nov. 21, 2013), and yet it often fails at its very premise. Since the collapse of Napster, publishers have feared piracy as a major threat to their virtual revenue streams, demanding DRM locks for their eBook files. While this hysteria has been very effective in pushing publishers to different DRM software, the programs themselves are rarely as competent. Although the average reader may be unsure how to maneuver around DRM locks, it is “not much of a problem for the sophisticated pirate” (Albanese, May 29, 2014). With society growing ever more dependent and technologically savvy, the number of those unable to find torrents or copies of digital files is quickly diminishing. No matter what the software, people will always “figure out how to fix it so that it opens eBooks no matter what the circumstances” (Doctorow, May 3, 2012), and many will share that information. Rather than being an efficient means of protection then, it can be argued that DRM on eBooks will only become less effective over time.
Paired with this misconception of effectiveness is the idea of DRM as a necessity to the book publishing industry. In many instances there seems to be a fear surrounding the releasing of DRM-free eBooks, even in the face of its relative impotence. Upon closer examination, however, there appears to be a telling lack of evidence surrounding this claim as well. Piracy and file sharing are loudly condemned in the publishing industry as being a major enemy and threat, and yet there is actually very little hard evidence to support this condemnation. Piracy is said to actively and negatively impact online content revenue streams, but these accusations “are just not provable” (ebookarchitects.com, 2015). In 2010, the US Accountability Office conducted a one year research study that ultimately came to this conclusion, stating “that there is just not enough information to show that piracy is having a negative impact on the sale of digital goods” (ebookarchitects.com, 2015). A prime example of this can be seen in the recent actions of Tor Books UK. An imprint of MacMillan, Tor “went DRM-free for all of its titles in April 2012”(ebookarchitects.com, 2015), and reported no discernable increases in pirated files after the fact. Tor Books founder Tom Doherty even went so far as to say that the lack of DRM had “not increased the number of Tor eBooks online illegally, nor [had] it visibly hurt [their] sales” (Albanese, May 29, 2014).
Other companies have undergone similar experiences as well. Springer eBooks, which boasts tens of thousands of scientific research files, has also been quoted downplaying the harm of piracy. Though Springer still issues anti-piracy strategies for their authors’ sakes, the company admits that it “doesn’t see piracy as a direct threat to its [eBook] revenues” (torrentfreak.com, August 20, 2013). If eBook piracy and online content sharing is as large of a threat to publishing as is it appears, this lack of evidence makes no sense. It stands to reason then, that the danger is being exaggerated, and with that, the necessity of DRM itself.
Besides being unnecessary, I would argue that DRM has also, and rather ironically, had several negative consequences for the industry it is meant to protect. As a service industry, publishing depends on customer satisfaction. And yet, with feuding giants like Amazon, Apple, and Adobe each putting out eBook files with different, device specific DRM software, the customer is often the one to suffer. By providing incompatible DRM, eBook retailers are attempting to force their consumers to purchase solely from them or their affiliates. This “penaliz[ing] [of] the customer” (Hitz, January 14, 2014) is extremely risky and has a strong possibility of backfiring. If readers eBooks won’t travel between different devices with them, loyal customers will begin to be “alienated [and] frustrated, and will likely seek out unauthorized ways to get books in the future” (Doctorow, May 3, 2012). By locking out competitor devices or products, eBook publishers are making pirated versions seem increasingly convenient, and this could result in the pushing out of DRM protected content.
Perhaps even more concerning from an industry perspective, however, is the restrictions DRM places upon publishers themselves. Publishers often bemoan their position in the industry, when in reality their problems are caused by the “copyright law and the stupid DRM that [they themselves] [have] demanded” (Masnick, October 31, 2014). Amazon has mass control of the online book market, and to a large degree, DRM is the tool that gave it its teeth. All of the eBooks Amazon sells have a specific DRM for the Kindle, which means that “readers who buy books for their kindles likely won’t read on other eReading platforms and will be reluctant to purchase from Amazon’s rivals that use incompatible” (Howell, November 21, 2013) formats. This puts a large lock on the market for competing publishers, and highlights yet another negative consequence of DRM as a whole.
Given this information, it seems not only plausible, but also smart, for the publishing industry (sans Amazon), to follow Tor’s example and make DRM-free eBooks. On one hand, this will potentially allow smaller publishers to even out the playing field in regards to Amazon. Online content that could easily and legally transfer between devices would effectively end “the eBook format wars” (Doctorow, May 3, 2012) and prevent monopolization through restrictions. Giving this freer content to their audiences would also help publishers to improve upon the satisfaction of their partners. For authors, such free sharing could lead not to lost sales, but rather, to a wider audience and diminishing obscurity. At the same time, reader experiences would also improve, and subsequently, numbers of sales.
Though born out of a desire to protect an already fragile industry, it is evident that DRM is failing in its execution. Ineffective, unnecessary, and restrictive to all who come in contact with it, DRM on eBooks is ultimately detrimental to eBook publishing for anyone who is not Amazon. What is needed then, is not more locks and regulations, but rather, an embracing of the freedom offered, and a dispelling of the traditional publisher’s fear.
Albanese, Andrew. “Why Tor Dumped DRM.” Publishers Weekly. May 29, 2014. Web. January 28, 2015.
N.A. “Learning About Ebooks: Digital Rights Management.” ebookarchitects. n.d., Web. January 28, 2015.
Doctorow, Cory. “Why the death of DRM would be good news for readers, writers, and publishers.” The Guardian. May 3, 2012. Web. January 28, 2015.
Ernesto. “Piracy Doesn’t Harm eBook Sales, Publisher Says.” torrentfreak. August 20, 2013. Web. January 28, 2015.
Hitz, Shelley. “The Pros and Cons of DRM.” thefutureofink. January 14, 2014. Web. January 28, 2015.
Howell, Kemari. “DRM and the Future of Publishing.” Pub Soft. November 21, 2013. Web. January 28, 2015.
Masnick, Mike. “How Publishers and Copyright Gave Amazon The Very Power Publishers Now Hate.” Tech Dirt. October 31, 2014. Web. January 28, 2015.