Dumping DRM is not a panacea

As I’ve watched the e-book market develop, I’ve gradually lost a good deal of patience with the argument that DRM is the thing keeping people locked into the Amazon Kindle ecosystem. The latest example to pop up comes via Cory Doctorow’s latest column in The Guardian (found via BoingBoing). Doctorow feels Hachette is hoist by its own petard because of the DRM it insists Amazon (and the other e-book stores) use.

It’s an old, old argument. And make no mistake, I don’t like DRM myself and would be just as glad if it all went away tomorrow. But Doctorow is selling the abandonment of DRM as some kind of panacea that will restore balance to the e-book market. The thing is, I don’t think that’s true.

As I’ve said before, the real thing keeping customers locked to Amazon is the sheer convenience of being able to tap once and make an e-book magically appear on their device. Even sideloading Baen’s DRM-free Mobi files turned out to be beyond so many Kindle owners that eventually Baen had to throw over its entire way of selling e-books in order to get them into Amazon’s store where more people would buy them.

What reason is there to believe that, if DRM went away tomorrow, these Kindle owners wouldn’t simply continue buying from Amazon? You can sideload public domain titles from Project Gutenberg easily enough, but you still find plenty of 99 cent public domain e-books available from the Kindle store.. I’ll bet most Kindle owners don’t even know what DRM is.

I’d be quite happy if publishers stopped using DRM, and I think it would lead to a healthier e-book market in the long term, but I don’t think it’s an immediate magic bullet. I don’t think most people in the publishing industry do, either. Which means that people who make those claims just aren’t going to get much traction.

Update: Laura Hazard Owen says much the same thing on GigaOm. The Doctorow article is also seeing some discussion on The Passive Voice.

10 Comments on Dumping DRM is not a panacea

  1. I agree they are overstating their case. Most people don’t care one way or another. Here’s another perspective. I wonder how many people don’t buy ebooks from Amazon because of DRM. I’m a confirmed Amazon customer and a heavy e-book reader, but I never buy ebooks from Amazon. There’s no easy way to tell if an Amazon e-book is DRM’ed before you buy it, so I just don’t take the chance. I have plenty of other options, from Project Gutenberg through Humble Bundle to Lost Art Press.

    I know I’m an outlier and Amazon is not losing sleep over the few freaks like me who won’t buy DRM’ed books. I just wish they would use their ostensible super-powers and break the publishers and their DRM once and for all.

  2. What I can — and do — get from Gutenberg is lots of individual novels by the out-of-copyright writers that I enjoy. But wherever possible I also get the Complete Works sets by publishers like Delphi — e.g. http://www.amazon.com/Delphi-Complete-Charles-Dickens-Illustrated-ebook — so I know that I’ve got everything right there if and when I ever need it. Simply considered as a reference, it’s worth the three dollars many times over.

  3. I’ll restate my suggestion from sometype back as how to protect the author and the p;ublisher. Do not remove DRM but come up with a form that, for a fee (maybe 1/2 or 1/3 of the retail p;rice,), a one-time DRM removal code would allow the book to be shared with someone else. From this fee part would go to the publisher, the seller, part to the author. This could be done several times but not to send to several at one time.

  4. @neuse river sailor, it is easy to tell if a book is DRM-free on Amazon. Just look for the “Simultaneous Device Usage”. If it’s Unlimited, the book is DRM-free. B&N is hard. I still haven’t figured out how to tell there. I just checked one of my books, which I know is DRM-free, and I can’t find anything in the book description that indicates DRM status.

  5. You’re right, it is not DRM that has me buying most of my books from Amazon. I can read other retailers’ epubs and pdfs on my phone with the Google Play Books app with no problems. My first priority is price, and Amazon wins there 9 out of 10 times. If other retailers match Amazon’s price, then your supposition is what I think of next – ease of purchase and downloading. This means Amazon gets the majority of that last 10% of my ebook purchases, as well. Only if another retailer is cheaper am I willing to bother with a more complicated download process, and that just doesn’t happen very often.

  6. There is more than one factor behind ditching DRM. Yes, DRM prevents competition amongst sellers for the buyer, but the discussion here shouldn’t be on where people buy books from today. The majority of people will buy from wherever is the most convenient in the absence of other incentives.

    The real problem with DRM here is that it discourages buyers from moving around. Amazon’s large stake of customers is likely to persist because, in the event of a better of cheaper competitor arising, people are unlikely to leave their entire library behind. A competitor stealing some of that market share is not unthinkable, especially as people are increasingly likely to simply tuck their books into an “app” that can live beside another, but it is significantly more difficult.

  7. Certainly DRM shouldn’t be credited with singlehandedly locking in customers. However, it is an important part of the larger effort to silo one’s customers. The effect on readers varies according to whether they are aware of it and find it irksome for some reason. Those folks who find it sufficiently irksome can take steps to remove the DRM.
    Amazon not only has DRM in its arsenal, it also has a format that is just different enough to present yet another barrier to leaving their silo.
    As we are primarily talking about the reading of text-only fiction that is a one-time thing for most readers, removing the DRM and converting to the more universal ePub format simply isn’t worth the effort.
    In the same way many people surrender privacy to Google in exchange for zero cost, many people surrender choice in the marketplace in exchange for convenience, especially where the literature is disposable anyway. We can only hope that this decision is an informed one.
    We really don’t know what the effect of major trade publishers dropping DRM might be. Given the inertia of the lock-in generated so far, it might not make much difference at all. OTOH, we might see something new. Who knows until we do it.

  8. Another problem with DRM is it prevents conpetition in the seller market. If the cost of DRM, (in the 10’s of thousands to get started) wasn’t so prohibitive, there would be all kinds of specialty e-book retailers. As things stand, some do exist, but they can’t carry books sold through the publishers that require DRM and geographic region locks. (The geographic regions locks are harder to deal with, since they are baked into many contracts. Still, I can not see why publishers would continue to buy books with region limited e-book contracts, when that puts such a burdon on E-books sale for no reason whatesoever, (from the publisher perspective.)

  9. Before Overdrive provided the ability to check out digital library books in Kindle format, I bought a Nook Color so that I could read library books in addition to buying books for my Kindle. My experiences with e-pub were excruciatingly bad. Not the format itself, which is lovely, but rather the hassle of getting the book onto my device which is all related to Adobe, Adobe Digital Editions, etc. It would tell me that this device was not authorized for the book, despite the fact that a week previous it had been authorized. The University of Chicago offers a free e-pub book once a month. Suddenly those would not download to the Nook Color. Now I seem to be able to get those onto the Bluefire app on my iPad.

    None of the problems I had made me want to get any more e-pub books other than those from the U of Chicago which work on the Bluefire app but not on my Nook. I have side-loaded plenty of books onto my Kindle from the public domain sites and from Smashwords, so it is not the side-loading that bothers me. And have side-loaded non-DRM books onto the Nook as well. However, working with e-pub on a day-to-day basis as long as it is associated with Adobe is beyond me. Removal of DRM for books would be a blessing. Until then, I am pretty well locked in to the Kindle sandbox.

  10. @Mary, all of this difficulty can be attributed to DRM.
    I, too, enjoy many of the free ePubs offered by UC Press but would rather read them in iBooks on my Mac, iPad, iPod touch or all three thanks to iCloud. To do that, I must defeat the Adobe DRM. Here is a good source of info on this topic: http://apprenticealf.wordpress.com

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