As long-time readers know, we carry plenty of stories about how DRM is harmful to consumers, preventing them from fully using the products they paid for. (And we have plenty of commenters ready to go even farther about how terrible DRM is!) But one thing you hear about less often is how DRM can be harmful to e-book stores as well.

Ruth Curry, chief operating officer of independent e-bookseller Emily Books, has written a piece on PaidContent discussing the effect that DRM has had on the store she runs with her friend Emily Gould. Major publishers were not willing to let her store sell its books without DRM, but the systems needed to implement DRM were too costly for a store of Emily’s size to implement.

DRM is supposed to prevent piracy and illegal file sharing. In order to provide DRM, you need at least $10,000 up front to cover software, server, and administration fees, plus ongoing expenses associated with the software. In other words, much bigger operating expenses than a small business can afford. By requiring retailers to encrypt e-books with DRM, big publishers are essentially banning indie retailers from the online marketplace.

DRM doesn’t really stop piracy, Curry notes, comparing it to “the anti-theft sensors by the doors at the drugstore” that go off all the time but can’t stop the people who know how to remove a magnetic tag. It doesn’t stop dedicated pirates, but does prevent casual sharing—which suggests publishers are feeling pretty desperate if they want to take away such an integral part of the reading experience.

Curry admits that some sort of system is needed to prevent piracy and make sure authors get paid, but points out that the current system is just helping Amazon and Apple and making things difficult or impossible for almost everybody else—including the independent bookstores that have been crucial in supporting new writers and giving readers individual service rather than larger chains’ one-size-fits-all.

Given the industry’s fears about Amazon’s increasing monopoly on talent and market share, coupled with its ability to drive prices, you’d think publishers would be hesitant to do anything that would make it easier for Amazon to maintain its dominance. Instead, by insisting that e-booksellers implement DRM, publishers are essentially handcuffing themselves to the train tracks and giving Amazon the key.

Emily Books has been getting around this by selling e-books only from publishers who don’t insist on DRM, and has had no problems with piracy so far. Curry and Gould would like to add neglected titles from major publishers’ backlists, but this will be impossible until the publishers stop insisting on DRM.

We have lately been hearing more and more voices from within the publishing industry speaking out about how ineffective DRM is and the advantage it hands to Amazon, and we’ve seen the Harry Potter franchise go (mostly) DRM-free and sell its e-books in record numbers. Does this mean that the dam may be starting to crack, and sooner or later we’ll see publishers drop DRM in the interest of supporting a healthier e-book industry?

As I’ve said before, I’d be pretty surprised if it happened soon. But on the other hand, I was totally blindsided when Amazon sold music DRM-free and Steve Jobs got the record labels to let Apple drop DRM on iTunes music. So it’s not impossible. It just remains to be seen whether Amazon or piracy scares publishers more.


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