I am going to posit an opinion here that is bound to be unpopular. That’s fine, as long as it triggers a dialogue on the issue. Here it goes: DRM on ebooks is not as big a deal as the arguments claim.
First, a little info dump to make sure that everyone is up to speed. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management and is encoding – either software or hardware – that provides controls on how digital content can be used. It could be something like an encryption that can only be unlocked by approved hardware (this is how DVDs work, although the encryption was broken years ago). It could be a limit for how or where the digital content can be accessed (you can listen to a song on your registered music player, but not on your friend’s music player). It can also provide time limits for digital content, like the checkout period for a library book. DRM can also prevent tasks like copy & paste, and printing. It almost always prevents resale. In many cases, DRM is used to place an artificial limit onto digital content so that it can mimic a non-digital analogue and allow past and current business models to exist in a post-shortage economy. I’m not going to get into post-shortage stuff here, that is something I’m planning on covering in next week’s eBook post.
Okay, so we have a a digital lock on our digital content that limits what we can do with it. This is a bad thing, right? Well, yes, in a way anything that limits our actions can be considered an affront to freedom. A lot of the rhetoric against DRM is along the lines that it treats the consumer like a criminal, since DRM is often seen as an anti-piracy measure. The argument goes that pirates will break the DRM anyway, so the only people it is hurting are legitimate customers. I see the validity of these arguments, but I do not believe that DRM is something that prevents the majority of people from buying digital content.
For the past couple of years, the publishing world has appeared to be in a strange war with Amazon. They are threatened by Amazon’s hold on the eBook realm and their huge push into self-publishing, lowering the obstacles for writers to publish and sell directly to readers. At the same time, Amazon represents an enormous portion of book sales. So the publishers hate Amazon for disrupting their business models, but love them for their commercial success, even if latter success is a result of former disruption. As I said, strange war. There are some that consider in this conflict that the publishers’ reliance on (and possibly addiction to) DRM is crippling them in competing against Amazon. There are others that suggest that the publishers should counter Amazon by pulling their ebooks from the digital shelves and sell them from their own sites. I believe that this would be a mistake for reasons I will soon explain. There is plenty of other information out there about the fight against DRM and all the wonderful things that will happen if it disappeared forever.
So, back to my opinion that DRM really is not that big of a deal. My main reason for saying this is that the majority of people do not care. Only the tech-savvy really care about DRM and its potential threats to our digital freedoms. For your average Joe and Suzie Blow, as long as they can read a book on their device, they do not carry if they are locked into Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Kobo. They do not think about selling the copy of that book when they are done with it. Maybe they think that it would be nice to share it with Mary Doe who lives next door, but Mary has a different eReader so it would be a hassle. Besides, the book was only $10, Mary can buy her own copy. Joe and Suzie bought the book for their personal enjoyment, and that is where it ends. You ask them about the evil DRM on the book, and they will look at you blankly for one very important reason – the DRM is invisible to them.
I believe that “invisible DRM” is the reason why Apple was so successful when they released the iPod and why Amazon had the same success when they released the Kindle. Each of their products had DRM on them, but you did not see any sign of it when you bought from their respective stores – which the majority of users are going to do. In both cases, all a user needed to do was click on the buy button and then sync their device to their accounts. Amazon took this one step further with wireless cellular syncing in its earliest models (now they offer cellular and wifi connections). In a few seconds, the book you bought on the Kindle was on your device and ready to read. Prior to Amazon’s Kindle, purchasing an ebook involved:
- Browsing to the appropriate vendor’s store
- Buying the book
- Downloading the file (including going through whatever DRM scheme was involved)
- Connecting the reader device with a cable to the computer
- Using the vendor’s specific software to copy the downloaded file to the reading device
It was not easy or straightforward. Apple and Amazon changed this for digital music and eBooks respectively. In no part of the process of buying an Amazon eBook are you presented with the words DRM or security. You may have to log in to your Amazon account, but that is normal when you buy something from them. Amazon took what people were used to doing, and just continued it. They did the same thing when they launched library lending through Overdrive for Kindle eBooks. A Kindle user did not need to bother with the Adobe Digital Editions or even the Overdrive software and a tangle of account names and passwords. Instead they log into their Amazon account and click the download button. DRM is one of those things that lives very much up to the cliché, “Out of sight, out of mind.” It is only when something happens (like a woman finding that B&N prevented her downloading books because of an expired credit card*) that prevents access that it becomes an issue. Until that happens though, and someone is aware of the effects of DRM, it does not matter to them. Therefore whether DRM exists on eBooks or not, it is not going to be a factor in the majority of buyers’ decision making about eReaders or eBooks.
To return to a earlier point, there is the contention that publishers should remove DRM and sell books directly to readers from their own site as an Amazon runaround. There are a couple of reasons why I feel this will not work. The first is that publishers have done a poor job of marketing themselves as a brand in the past. Usually the marketing focus has been on creating a brand around an author or series. People know to look for Stephen King or Harry Potter, not to look for Viking or Scholastic. Most of the time lately that publishers’ names have come up in the media lately has been in largely negative connotations, further damaging the option that they could successfully represent themselves as an online retail source. Now branding and PR image is something that can be overcome; the second reason I feel that publishers breaking off into their own independent eBook stores is the convenience of shoppers. Book shoppers have gotten used to being able to go to a single vendor and buy pretty much any book they want to. They have gotten used to being able to browse the shelves, or in the case of the online store browse recommendations, sales lists, or genre categories. When all the books are available at Amazon, a user can browse all the options. Furthermore, since readers are used to shopping at a single site, and their devices are designed to shop at those specific sites, if the readers do not find it at their selected store, they will not buy it. They will buy something else that they can find.
Additionally, the online site can use previous shopping information to recommend other products, even if they are from another publisher. If publishers were to create their own eBook stores they would be creating limited silos of products that would require users to search multiple sites to find anything. This would be an incredibly devastating blow to eBook discoverability at a time when it is already difficult to sort through the huge amounts of information out there. Each publisher would also only have purchasing information limited to their own silos of content. Publisher 1 would not know that Joe Blow bought Book A from Publisher 2, so could not recommend Book B which would be very interesting to Joe because he liked Book A.
So, is there a solution to all of this mess? We could educate consumers about the perils of DRM and push them to DRM-free sources, but I feel that will go over the head of most users and reduce the convenience of the eReader device enough to push them back to buying print books (which publishers would like) or not buying books at all (which hurts everyone). I recognize that there are legitimate reasons for DRM and that a whole blanket movement to remove it would never fly or work. What is probably needed is a DRM-scheme that is connected to a person’s secure digital identity (once we have a secure digital identification system, of course) instead of it being attached to a specific vendor account or device identification (a couple of the current schemes). With something like that in place, a user could use their identification to log into a device, and therefore that device would have access to any of their purchased digital content. Something like this already works for Steam, the digital store for PC gaming. I can log into my steam account on any computer, run an authentication check (the secure part of a secure digital identification), and then download and install any game I have purchased. It doesn’t matter if it is already installed on my computer at home – as long as both computers aren’t trying to play it at the same time. Amazon does something similar to this with their multiple platform attack of their Kindle apps. I can use the Kindle app connected to my account on any of my computers, my phone, my tablet, or even through any web browser and access the eBooks I have bought from them. There is DRM there, sure, but it is invisible to me as a user, and I can get the content when and where I choose.
So, readers, I ask you this: Given that DRM is a necessary evil, at least for now, how would you improve the system to make eBook systems better?
*That article has little follow up or research into the issue. If you read through the comments you find that B&N uses the active credit card on record as their DRM-encryption key. If the credit card