In a Publishing Perspectives discussion seed article connected to the piece on the French Feedbooks matter that we covered a few days ago, Edward Nawotka pondered whether one of the reasons publishers like DRM so much might be that it often causes people to have to buy multiple electronic versions of a given work as earlier platforms fade to obsolescence.

It’s an interesting notion. Certainly I’m not immune; I had to re-buy the Liaden novels after their original DRM-using e-book vendor went out of business. (Though the re-bought versions come from Baen, so I’ll never have to worry about DRM on them ever again!) And it has a parallel to the way the music and movie industries are in love with new media formats—the CD and DVD led to a lot of duplicate sales from people who wanted to rebuild their existing collections in the new digital formats,

Of course, successors to the CD (SACD, DVD-Audio) didn’t work out as well, and it’s thought that the Blu-Ray is going to be the last physical format for movies before they go all-digital for streaming and downloading. And music is pretty much there, too. And hey, for that matter now books are going to “all-digital formats” as well! Though as the towering e-babel of e-book formats indicates, just going digital doesn’t necessarily mean the end of format-derived double-dipping.

But it’s not clear that this is an unalloyed benefit to publishers, or even a net benefit at all. For every consumer who willingly double-dips, there will be others (possibly a lot of others) who are frustrated enough by being expected to double-pay for something they already own (or, as the publishers would have it, license) that they’ll just go crack the DRM or pirate it altogether—and grumble loudly about the asinine publishers who keep trying to bilk them out of their hard-earned money, and perhaps not bother buying their next e-book.

After all, when you buy the same work or music or video in a new medium, there is usually a corresponding jump in quality to make the purchase more worthwhile—LP to CD, VHS to LD to DVD to Blu-Ray—or at least additional content (as when movie studios release “special edition” DVDs). When you buy an e-book over again, you’re just getting the same words behind a different lock and key.

In any event, I don’t expect e-book DRM to go away very soon. Until it does, we all just have to deal with it.


  1. I will never, ever pay for the same ebook twice. Learning to strip DRM was only a bit complicated at first, to get the scripts and plug-ins set up, now it only takes dragging a file to an icon and poof! No DRM. And then with Calibre I can have any format I want, too. Publishers are darn lucky some of even bother to strip DRM – downloading an illegal file would be just as quick, and as prices go up becomes more and more of a temptation.

  2. I understand the frustration of buying the same book twice (although I’ve done the same with paper books when I’ve (a) lent a book to someone, only to have it permanently vanish; (b) had my basement flood; (c) had to give up thousands of books before a move; (d) not remembered that I’d picked up that book and grabbed another copy–all of which problems I now eliminate via eBooks.

    I don’t think this is really the reason publishers care about DRM, however. In my experience, many publishers take the position that if you make it clear you don’t want something stolen, it’s less likely to be stolen. Thus, DRM is like the lock on a newspaper vending machine. It won’t keep out the serious thieves (who simply cut through the plastic), but it reminds people they’re expected to pay.

    For a variety of reasons, I tend to steer clear of DRM, but I’m not religious about it. I understand arguments on both sides. Unfortunately, many people approach DRM as a religious issue rather than simply a cost/benefit equation.

    Rob Preece

  3. Google Ebooks is the way it will go. You will sign in to your account and all your books will be there. You will be able to access it from any device.

    So you will never have to double-purchase a digital book. But you will never be able to purchase that digital book in the first place: instead you will only rent it — literally now rather than the ‘purchase-which-is-only-a-license’ model currently used.

    You will need to pay monthly fees for access. And ultimately the goal of all ‘content owners’ will be pay-per-view, or in the case of ebooks, pay-per-read: every time you want to read a book, you will pay. Probably a dollar a reading.

    That’s as much as I can see anyhow: that’s the model all content owners crave. An end to public libraries, used book markets, lending, gifting — the lot. An eternal cash flow for all the classics, and bare-bones expenses on the hot new books that will be popular only for a season (like fad diet books and political ‘memoirs’).

    That seems to be what they want; will we stand for it? That’s the question.

  4. “Google Ebooks is the way it will go.”

    “That seems to be what they want; will we stand for it? That’s the question.”

    It won’t matter what they want. What will matter is what people want. I cannot see the mass of ordinary readers paying for something they are not allowed to take possession of and have to be online to read. It’s not going to happen imho, and the competition who emphasise to us that we get to keep our eBook file all for our very own will clean up if they try.

  5. I will never pay money for a book I can’t download, and I will never want to download a book I cannot de-encrypt. So, paying for ‘access’ is not a model I will subscribe to. Ever. They can ‘want’ it if they must, but if people will not pay for it, they will be SOL. This is a *market* and at some point, they have to compromise what they want in favour of what people will actually pay for.

  6. If double-dipping were such a workable commercial method, why produce anything new at all? Just change all your formats every few years. Publishers might make some income off of double-dipping when formats change. But they do it at the expense of new material which will go unsold, because people have already spent on old material and have nothing left for the new. Or, people will buy the new and leave the old behind.

    Either way, it’s probably a wash… except that double-dipping is a sure way to tick off your customers enough to have them seek other things to spend their money on.

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