DRM and the Future of Books

There is only one sure way for authors to prevent the theft of their work and that is to write stuff that isn’t worth stealing. Despite its proven efficacy, no author actively pursues this strategy though many have mastered it unintentionally. Instead, most authors I know worry about the piracy of their work and try to prevent theft by insisting upon some sort of Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme for their ebooks. I don’t when I have a choice.

DRM is a pretty broad term. It includes a number of technologies, some more intrusive than others, that can be applied to music, movies, books, electronic games, computer software, or pretty much any other sort of digital content. In ebooks, DRM is designed to control how purchasers use the digital books they buy.

The least intrusive scheme involves watermarking: applying a hidden tag to the content which will identify the content, the copyright holder, the seller, and in some cases the buyer. The idea is to prevent, or at least limit, copyright violation by discovering it easily and punishing those who benefit from it, whether the actual pirates, their intermediaries, or their customers. While watermarking does not directly restrict the production and sale of ebooks, it raises flags in two areas that concern writers and readers: freedom of speech and personal privacy.

Freedom of speech is taken for granted in the US. It is written into our Bill of Rights as the first Amendment to our constitution. Sadly, however, it is held in highest regard only when the speech is agreeable to the powers that be. Examples of its suppression, both abroad and in this country, are so numerous that they aren’t worth mentioning, but it is important to remember that speech is freest when the boys with the guns and rope have a hard time isolating the speaker and when the audience can listen safely and judge without fear of retribution. Watermarked books can be tracked through legitimate hands as easily as through illegitimate.

The personal privacy issue is a bit less obvious. The obvious first response to the question is that any information an author or reader shares can’t be all that private, but consider that the act of purchasing a trackable work is itself trackable. Anything trackable is storable, and anything storable is hackable. Or search warrantable. In short, it could be just as possible to raise the interest of the IRS by buying a book on foreign tax havens or raise your insurance rates by reading about cancer treatment as to get the attention of Homeland Security by buying copies of the Anarchist’s Handbook or works on the packaging and shipment of radioactive materials. A lot of folks worry about such things. Unfortunately, that particular ship has not only sailed; it has been captured, looted, and sunk. Watermarking will add nothing significant to the icloud of big data looming over our lives.

The lowest level of strong DRM is designed to prevent or limit unauthorized or illegal copying of copyrighted material. The men and women who create the content, the publishers who edit and format it, and the distributors who package and sell it naturally want to be paid for all their work. They don’t want readers giving copies away to their friends, and they don’t want anyone selling the work without forking over a cut of the cash, and they most certainly don’t want anyone making unauthorized copies, whether the copyists are motivated by greed or enthusiasm.

This is understandable, but it is also impractical for a couple of reasons. First, we cannot prevent copying. Any ebook reader can break or be stolen, and its ebook files can be lost or deleted accidentally, so readers have a need to make backup copies of their ebooks. They also should have a right to buy a new reading device or change computers without losing their books. More generally, readers should have the same rights to an ebook that they have to their printed books. If they buy a printed book they get a sheaf of paper and ink they can read, have autographed, stick on a shelf for a couple of years, reread, loan to a friend, trade in at a used book store, or even sell at a garage sale. These are reasonable expectations. Every printed volume satisfies them all and no ebook does.

Only one of the above expectations is clearly impossible for electronic media: we can’t autograph electrons, although some authors try to get around that by signing postcard replicas of their book covers. Of the other expectations, some are arguably served better by ebooks. Paper begins to fall apart on the tenth reading; electronic files do not, though they have their own limitations. Application of DRM, for instance, makes an ebook dependent on the organization which manages the digital rights. Remember the .lit book format and the Microsoft Reader? Those ebooks are gone, lost to technological obsolescence.

An even greater danger is commercial failure. DRM is applied by the company that sells the book, not the author and not even the publisher. When Fictionwise or Jmanga or CyberRead closed shop, the books purchased there were lost. And beyond commercial failure, a reader is vulnerable other sorts of failure. Amazon, for instance, once sold copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 without verifying the publisher’s rights. When it recognized the error, it promptly “unsold” the books by reaching into its customer’s computers and replacing the titles with vouchers.

Yes, they can do that, and no, it isn’t illegal. What is illegal is copyright violation. Stealing another’s work. That’s been illegal since 1790 in the US and since 1710 in the UK. It became illegal because people made money doing it, and the people whose work they stole complained loudly enough.

As long as a book meant ink on paper, copyright violation was lucrative, but expensive. The theft required an investment in copying or typesetting, printing and binding expenses, warehousing…in short, the crime was essentially theft from a publisher by a publisher and the primary profits were the money that would have gone to the author and what could be saved by cheaper printing. That started changing with the invention of photocopying, and computers, especially cheap personal computers, hammered the last nail in the coffin of traditional publishing. Of course some traditional publishers still zombie around the commercial landscape, eyeballing the new digital world nervously while digesting the brains of authors they consumed decades ago and pretending that the realities of paper and ink can be applied to the infosphere if only the right DRM formula can be found.

That is a simply terrible metaphor. I apologize to the zombies, the recently consumed authors, and all those still desperately trying to crawl onto the traditional publishers’ plates. But the facts are these: Any DRM technology in use today can be cracked by freely available DRM removal software. If a new technology came along that couldn’t be hacked, ebooks using it could be stolen by hiring a typist to copy them from a screen or ebook reader. And if that costs too much, a paper copy of the book can be run through a scanner and an optical character recognition program. In short, there is no way to protect a work from a determined thief. The best an author can do is limit the damage.

I see two ways to do this. The first is by limiting the rewards of theft. Price ebooks in a reasonable way and increase the ease of identifying pirates by the use of watermarking or some similarly unintrusive technology. Most people are honest or lazy until tempted too much. They won’t steal a book that costs only a few dollars, particularly if they have to go out of their way to do the theft and the risk of exposure is sufficient. Publishers, like Tor, who have experimented with DRM-free books have not reported significant increases in piracy. The exception is in text books, which have become an increasingly burdensome expense that falls on those least able to afford it, the students.

Another way to limit the damage is by changing the meaning of publication. We’ve already seen that an ebook, no matter how well protected digitally by DRM, can be hacked or cracked easily and a printed book can be opened with only a little more trouble. Either act accomplishes a fundamental change in what is meant by the book. It frees the content from its physical manifestation. What once was a string of words bound between covers or locked in a file and tied to an ebook Reader has become pure information, infinitely replicable and convertible to any Reader format—Kindle, Nook, iBook, PDF, HTML, or formats not yet invented. This freedom releases the work. Once it is free of ink or DRM, it is no longer subject to one coding scheme, which will necessarily become obsolete, or one Reader technology. It is also freed from dependence on aging business models and the foresight, business intelligence, and competence of the publishers and distributors.

Freedom is highly praised in public and greatly feared in private. In this case, both attitudes are merited. Once a book (and from this point forward I will use the word to mean the string of words and images created by an author) is freed from paper, ink, formatting, packaging, and the other limitations of form and presentation, its audience is potentially unlimited. Rapidly improving translation algorithms will eventually free it even from from the author’s native language. Unfortunately, at the same time its audience explodes, the book’s earning potential drops to near zero. It may ghost around the world, from hard drive to database, but it will do no useful work, earn no profits, pay no wages.

There are two reasons for this. The book has been freed from its presentation, but it is not completely free. A host of legal rights remain attached to it, rights that pose risks for pirates and opportunities for their owners. Both groups can sell the book at this point, but each must apply work to profit from it because most of the value is added by the storage, presentation, and marketing of the content.

Both thieves and owners have to format the content for their customers. They have to package it, advertise it, and sell it. The pirates have to spend a bit to cover their tracks, pay off politicos or law enforcement, hire lawyers, and so forth; the legitimate publishers and distributors need to pay off authors and accountants, make political contributions, hire lawyers, and so forth. Both will try to sell for the highest price possible and spend as little as possible on authors, accountants, lawyers, politicians, etc. The pirates will steal as much formating and artwork as they can. The distributors will spend what they must to maximize sales in formats or venues they control and minimize sales by competing distributors.

Not too much of this works to the advantage of authors under contract to a traditional publisher or committed to a single distributor. The pirate gives them nothing while their business partner passes along as little as possible.
Though painted with a broad brush, this is the current state of publishing. It skips too lightly over indie authors who are their own publishers and leapfrogs the thieves who give even pirates a bad name by opting completely out of the capitalist system and sharing books freely on the internet. The current state is not the only state, however. Some of the greatest authors in world literature, Dickens, for instance, were published in installments by newspapers or magazines. This subscription model had the advantage that books were available to pirates only after the legitimate, paying readers had seen them. They were still pirated, of course, but the authors and publishers were paid at least once for their labor. Obviously, publication by newspaper installment is no longer realistic, but new business models are springing up. Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited and Oyster and Scribd are the leaders at present, but others will spring up, and some may actually contribute meaningfully to the writers’ bank accounts.

Other models will undoubtedly appear. Some may post free books, paying the authors and other contributors from advertising revenue. Some may sell books by the page read, or even by the word. Some may bundle written content with music, video or graphics, games, or access to databases or subject matter experts in the case of nonfiction. Special interest content may be tied to products, travel or other services, or social sites. The content will necessarily be DRM-free. It is hard to see how piracy can be worth the effort in these cases.

Even under the present business models DRM offers no advantage to readers. They are wholly dependent on the distributors to maintain their libraries, manage their encryption keys, keep the Reader technology alive, or at least maintain backward compatibility as it evolves, and even if the distributors do all that, the books and thus the readers’ libraries are tied to the distributor. Readers can’t buy a Kindle book and read it on a Nook Reader. They can’t change to a new Reader when something better comes along without losing everything they invested in their old library. Realistically, they cannot even rely on their favorite booksellers to stay in business.

And that is why I do not favor DRM for my books.

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