DRM protestThe e-book business was more or less born broken—the victim of consumer-hostile DRM, not just the Tower of eBabel and hardware limitations.

What to do to kickstart e-books, so they can be more than a speck of p-book sales? None other than Bill McCoy at Adobe has advocated “social DRM,” a visible form of watermarking, as a gentler way to reduce piracy.

Bill’s arguments in effect got a boost recently when Jupiter Research polled European music executives and found that 58 percent of executives at major labels felt that no DRM would boost sales. Outside the majors, the statistic was a whopping 73 percent. Check out the stories from Engadget, MacWorld UK and Ars Technica. Encouragingly, the poll was conducted before Steve Jobs’ anti-DRM statement.

Why DRM persists

So why does DRM linger on in the music industry? Because the people in charge—not necessarily music executives in general—lack the guts to live without it and because they’re more comfortable with physical media such as CDs.

Just the same, doesn’t it say something when even music executives dislike DRM? Although the poll was conducted in Europe, many executives in the U.S. music industry would undoubtedly feel the same. Within American book publishing? I’m not sure. But sooner or later, as the aging publishing bosses retire or die off, the winds could change.

Meanwhile Microsoft and the like are using proprietary DRM as one more weapon in wars against linux and other competitors. Abetting the offenders here in the States are Washington politicians who passed the DMCA, which makes it illegal for you to crack DRM even if it’s just to make a backup of an e-book or translate the format.

Helpful: A mitigated DMCA

So here’s what I’m thinking. With many and perhaps most young people in the States and Europe owning iPods and the like, maybe political activists need to focus on the anti-fair use clauses of laws such as America’s DMCA. That would be not place governments in the position of banning DRM, but at at least that would force content industries either to drop the technology or make it much more consumer-friendly.

Genuine experts such as Bruce Schneier believe that Microsoft’s VISTA if anything will aggravate DRM problems, but maybe that will actually be A Good Thing—by helping to build up consumers’ hatred of DRM. Perhaps the loathing will reach the point where politicians will have no choice to mitigate the DMCA.

A still-better scenario for e-books

Please note that the above is just one possible scenario as far as e-books go. Even better, would be for the book business on its own to consider moving away from DRM. IPDF members and others within the e-book business should take the McCoy watermarking proposal very seriously and experiment with the use of watermarks on the books of consenting writers. Let’s stop the theorizing and see how things work in actual practice.

With social DRM, it’s possible there’ll be more piracy than with the Draconian variety (although even that isn’t certain when pirates can use OCRing to circumvent the inconvenience of DRM books for consumers). But guess what counts in the end? Not suppression of leakage but rather actual sales. If books are like music, I’m confident net earnings will increase without the hassles of DRM—a belief already shared by many small publishers that shun “protection.”

The library angle: Ideally social DRM could also be applied to library books. The only difference might be that the files would automatically expire. Of course, if library users could download books for keeps for personal use, with publishers getting somewhat higher payments in return for such flexibility, I’d be delighted.


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