A few weeks ago, we had a post that discussed alternatives to Amazon and Barnes & Noble for purchasing eBooks. One of the advantages some of these alternatives had was that they don’t sell eBooks with DRM (Digital Rights Management), and I promised a future post on this subject. In this post I’ll lay out the arguments for and against from the viewpoint of both the author and the reader.
What is DRM?
Digital Rights Management or DRM is a method intended to insure that consumption of digital content conforms to license terms. Also called copy protection, DRM limits the ability to make or use copied digital content including computer software and digital media such as music, video, and eBooks. In this post, we’ll be discussing DRM only as it relates to eBooks, although the experiences of other industries are pertinent to the discussion.
What You are Really Buying: The difference between paper and digital media.
I’m not a lawyer (and none of this post constitutes legal advice, although hopefully it is reasonably accurate). It is also very US-centric. Although much of it is accurate elsewhere, the laws involved can and do differ in other countries.
Many people may not realize the difference between purchasing digital and physical media and the different rights this gives them. In general, if you have something physical (a book, a computer disc containing software, a CD, or a DVD) that you’ve bought, you can lend it or resale it. Whether you can copy it and allowable uses if you do depends on the terms of the license. Allowable uses are defined by a license that comes with the product, by copyright law, or a combination of both. For our discussion, the key thing to know is that the right to copy or have copies (if any) goes with the physical product. For example, if you have MP3s on your computer or MP3 player that were ripped from a CD you purchased then you are probably not in violation of copyright law. However, if you later sell the physical CD and don’t delete the MP3s, you are in violation of the copyright.
With digital goods, the consumer doesn’t have a physical product. What they are purchasing is a license that grants specific rights to use the content in clearly defined ways. They have no right to resale, for example. Depending on the eBook and where it was purchased the license may grant limited lending rights. They might have the right to keep a copy of their purchase somewhere as a backup. They might have the right to keep a copy of the book on multiple devices or for multiple people to read it at the same time (as in different devices attached to a single Amazon account).
The Case for DRM
Creating copies of a paper book is labor intensive. Whatever method is used will be of a lower quality than the original without significant investment in time and equipment. In contrast, creating copies of a digital file is almost effortless and the copy will be the same quality as the original. Almost anyone with a computer can reproduce unlimited copies of an unprotected electronic book. Authors, publishers, and other interested parties may decide to add DRM to their books to protect their interests. The theory is that DRM will prevent piracy by making it more difficult to produce usable copies of their eBooks. Even if someone has the skills to circumvent the DRM, it will be more work for the pirate. It will also prevent what I’ll call social piracy — when people make a single copy for a friend rather than for widespread distribution.
The Case against DRM
On the surface, the case for DRM seems straightforward and reasonable. If it prevented piracy and had no effect on legitimate purchasers’ use of the product, the case for using DRM would not be an issue. However, those who argue against using DRM say the effect on pirates is insignificant and what little effect there is on social pirating isn’t worth the downside of treating all your customers like thieves. In a discussion about DRM on another blog, I theorized that there are five kinds of people to consider when an author is deciding for or against DRM:
1) Those who actively pirate books by putting them up on pirate sites. They may or may not buy a copy of the book, but have the tools to easily strip the DRM. Whether a book has DRM has little effect on them. While targeted primarily at this group, DRM has very little impact on them.
2) Those who frequent pirate sites to obtain their reading material. As far as they are concerned, your book isn’t DRMed if they find it on a pirate site. This person is also extremely unlikely to actually buy a particular book whether it is DRMed or not. While they might get a book illegally and violate the author’s copyright, this is not a lost sale.
3) Readers who are not tech savvy and are never going to try anything out of the norm. They purchase their books from Amazon (or B&N) directly from their device or the retailer’s website, let it download automatically, and never go outside of the retailer’s system. *IF* they read on multiple devices or have multiple people on the same account, these people will all stay within the retailer’s system for everything. As long as nothing comes up to cause them to go outside their norm, they don’t know if your book is DRMed and don’t care.
4) People who are tech savvy and are not in category #1 or 2. These people buy your book and may mostly be like the people in category #3. However, they have enough knowledge to work outside of the retailer’s system. They realize any hardware might fail and they may, for example, want to keep a backup of all their eBooks on their PC. That way, if their Kindle breaks down, they could easily re-load it from the backup. However, those books with DRM won’t be readable. If someone in this group decides they would like to read your book on another device, maybe their Smartphone, you force them to stay within the retailer’s system, even though they might prefer to get books to the other device some other way. If they decide to change eReader brands, they realize they will lose their investment in eBooks. Anytime someone in this group runs into a DRMed book, they are at a minimum going to get irritated at the author/publisher and might potentially decide to stay away from their books in the future. They are also prime candidates to move to group #5. Personally, I’m in this group.
5) People who would fit in #4, but are worried enough about the potential of losing their investment (without removing DRM, which in some countries is illegal) or have run into DRM roadblocks/irritants enough that they actively avoid buying DRMed books.
While a subset of people in groups 4 and 5 might sometimes illegally lend a book, it is not going to be in any kind of volume. (Those are people in #1 and 2.) While illegal, in many cases the person who “borrowed” the book wouldn’t have purchased it, which means that while still illegal, it didn’t hit the author in the pocketbook. There is also a chance that this casual lending might gain the author a new reader, and actually be a positive for their pocketbook.
You can imagine the percentage of people distributed across these groups however you want. It doesn’t matter how many fit each because the only people who care about the book being DRMed and are significantly impacted by it are those who are paying customers and are not trying to rip off the author. The goal of DRM, to prevent and decrease piracy, doesn’t work.
Although there hasn’t been a formal study that I’m aware of, some authors have done informal experiments that appear to indicate lack of DRM doesn’t hurt an author’s sales and may actually help them. The trend in other industries has been away from DRM use because they have found the DRM creates enemies while not solving the problems it was intended to address. (One example is Apple’s iTunes store, which originally used a DRM scheme for MP3 downloads which was subsequently discontinued.)
Each reader and author needs to come to their own conclusion based on perceived risk, convenience, and their view of the future. If Amazon or Barnes & Noble were to go out of business, this would leave Kindle or Nook readers in the lurch when their current eReader stops functioning. For readers who decide they prefer eBooks without DRM, it argues for using Smashwords or other alternatives to the major retailers; however, this is at a loss of convenience. It should be noted that although both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have DRM schemes, it is possible for a self-publishing author to opt-out of using DRM when first publishing a book on Amazon. (I’m not certain whether this is an option at Barnes & Noble.) However, there is no consistent way for a potential purchaser to determine if a book from either retailer has DRM or not prior to purchase.