Opinions on DRM vs. piracy are like noses: everyone has one, and they all smell. Lately, I ran across a fairly interesting piece containing the opinions of Roland Denning, a London-based writer and filmmaker, on Self Publishing Review. I can’t entirely agree with it, but it does offer a good basis for discussion.

Denning sees problems with both the anti-DRM and anti-piracy arguments, finding that both sides harbor “some surprisingly naïve notions”, such as the idea that “we can stop people downloading, just like we can ‘win’ the ‘war on drugs’,” or that “people will pay for something they can get easily for nothing.”

He finds the Kindle’s proprietary e-book system to be very good at getting the average reader to buy e-books rather than pirate them, though at the same time it increases the competition any given book faces for readers by opening up a vast self-publishing market. He notes that the DRM restricts what readers can do with the e-book in terms of lending or reselling, but that on the other hand the infinite copyability of a digital file without DRM would pose a considerable risk to the publishing business. He is concerned about corporate sponsorship, product placement, and advertising taking over and driving out artistic integrity and other interests.

He makes a number of suggestions that, from a compromise perspective, make at least some sense:

We will never eliminate file sharing, but we can make buying ebooks as appealing as possible. Part of this I believe involves maintaining DRM to make the alternative less palatable,  a hassle for all but the geeks, but the positives for the ‘legitimate’ route are crucial. Ebooks need to be available quickly, easily and cheaply.  As much of the cover price as possible needs to be returned to the author, in fact in many cases the author will be the publisher, and the book industry will function mostly as a marketing service. There should be a finite way of ‘gifting’ an ebook to others so we can share our read and a system that would fit a new form of public library. The process of buying an ebook should also connect to a stream of further information about the work and the author and other readers. Beyond that there needs to be a filtering system to supersede the old model of agent/publisher/newspaper critic/bookseller. There needs to be a new form of adventurous publisher, with an astute sense of both what is good and what people might want, who can build up trust on both sides. And, crucially, we must maintain the sense of value of a book, a value not based on status, fashion or brand, but on the ideas within it.

Of course, like many people with ideas (including, admittedly, myself from time to time), he throws them out there without any clear explanation of how such things are to be accomplished. When you have publishers pitching a fit over the one-time-ever lending ability both the Kindle and Nook now have, how do you expect there to be some kind of way of “gifting” it? (Unless you’re talking about a Steam style ability to pay money for the e-book to be sent to another person, rather than transferring ownership of the e-book you have.)

And I have trouble figuring out how “maintaining DRM” will “make the alternative less palatable, a hassle for all but the geeks.” You don’t have to be much of a geek to type “twilight epub torrent” into Google. BitTorrent is just an application like any other, and while I’ll grant that a lot of people are not going to be able to figure it out (heck, as part of my day job I talk to dozens of people every day who can’t figure out how to set up their TVs), it hardly requires being a “geek” to do it, any more than it requires being a “geek” to know how to operate a web browser or word processor. (The real “geeks” are the ones who figure out how to crack the DRM or scan the printed books and upload them in the first place.)

The ones DRM creates “hassles” for are the ones who want to be able to back up their e-books or read them on unapproved platforms. (Or, yes, “lend” them to friends and family.) Some might be geeky enough to figure out how to crack it. Others might download cracked versions from peer-to-peer. The ones who get fed up enough over it might even decide just to skip the purchase and go right to step 2. But really, there’s not much to gain by rehashing the same arguments here.

One thing Denning covers earlier in the article is the concern that publishing might go the way of the music industry. “Look what happened to the music industry” he points out, suggesting that “a whole generation has grown up expecting music to be free.” But I don’t see that. For one thing, a study cited by Ars Technica pointed out that only 10 out of 1,000 random peer-to-peer files it examined were music, suggesting that the amount of music piracy has actually declined over time.

For another, the digital music business is booming. iTunes has sold scads of music at 99 cents per track. If the belief that digital music should be free were that common, you would expect it to be cutting into digital sales, but they seem to be in no danger of faltering. Just the other day, Amazon reduced the price of some of its music from 89 to 69 cents per track—a move you’d expect from a competitor in a tight market.

And yet, later in the article, Denning himself even notes that “what’s left of the music industry still makes the majority of its money from CD’s, not downloads.” So clearly CDs are not only still selling, they’re selling more than digital music is. People still want them as backups, or to have better control over music quality, or whatever. If they wanted digital music badly enough to steal it in such quantity, why would they still be buying physical artifacts?

If the music industry has contracted, it at least still seems to be remaining afloat. We’re not hearing about record labels teetering on the edge of bankruptcy—and I’d think that would make the news. Publishers are undergoing contractions as well, though I don’t know how much of that I would lay at the feet of piracy. Some of it, sure, but not nearly all of it. Some of it could be due to the down economy in general—and why look to piracy when you’ve got an industry riddled with wasteful shipping-storage-reshipping-pulping practices dating back to the Great Depression?

Regardless, as Heinlein said, no business has the moral right to continue making money in a particular way just because it’s been able to do so that way in the past. Society changes over time, and so does the willingness of people to buy particular forms of media. If publishers want to stay afloat, they’re going to need to make some changes. Hopefully sooner or later they can figure out what those changes are.