Is the removal of DRM really significant?
On Twitter, Tim W. (@hawkins8142) send me a link to a BBC article about TOR books deciding to remove DRM (digital rights management) software from their ebook titles. It’s a good article and correctly points out that other publishers (including indies) have been going without DRM for a while now. In fact, the TOR announcement has been burning through Twitter and otherwise being touted as a grand victory of sorts.
In response, I suggested that this move was meaningless because a lack of DRM still doesn’t mean that books purchased for use on a Kindle can now be read on a Nook or vice versa. A number of folks replied to my tweet (@mikestackpole) to point out to me that software programs like Calibre exist to make translation possible. Most of them noted that now, without DRM, it would no longer be illegal to copy and translate books so ones bought for one machine, they can now be read on all of them (including machines which, in theory, will be released in the future).
I’d like to clarify my response and respond to some of the responses.
First, I want to thank everyone for pointing me toward Calibre. I’ve actually known of the program for several years and have played with it. Likewise many others. I explored them when I was creating my own ebooks. I have a pretty good handle on their strengths and weaknesses. I agree that they are very powerful tools for folks wanting to do such translation. I really am thankful that you were thoughtful enough to share their existence with me, apparently out of the belief that my comment meant that I didn’t know how to do that translation myself. You’re all very kind.
Second, the very existence of these programs, the fact that they have to be pointed out to people and the fact that they require the use of a computer to do the translation, goes to the point I intended to make. The vast majority of people who use e-readers and tablets do so without using a computer, often with no desire to use a computer, and often enough without sufficient computer expertise to make these programs work. And while TSCasey (@targaroth) is undoubtedly correct, that folks who can’t do the translation will just ask computer literate folks to do it for them—as they always do—the real fact is that they don’t know enough about computers to even understand that there is a possibility of translation.
Those of us who are early adopters, who are computer savvy, who are interested in digital books are at risk of forgetting some simple truths about readers in general and people who have bought dedicated e-readers. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve had conversations with people about what I do, who profess to be Star Wars® fans, who profess to have read the novels, and who even tell me that I, Jedi is the best book they’ve ever read, who have no clue as to the name of the author. It astounds me, and not just because I wrote the book, but because, as an author and avid reader, I’ve trained myself to catalog author names and titles. Unfortunately, this is not a trait shared with the vast majority of readers, or such is my experience.
With e-readers, the thing I’m discovering is that most all of them have their book purchases tethered to the company that has its name of their e-readers. Okay, so this is like assuming that if you own a Ford you can only buy gas at the Ford filling station—a stupid idea. But owners of e-readers don’t drive past other gas stations when looking for books. They might hit a link in an email, but chances are they’ll just go to the store portal on their device and purchase from there, or do a quick search when they hear about a book on the radio or television. Because of that fact, because they only shop in one place, the issue of DRM is completely invisible to them. For those users, it is a complete non-issue.
It’s arguing color to folks who can only see in black and white.
I’m not arguing that TOR’s move to get rid of DRM is a bad one. Frankly, it will save them some money, so they can pass those savings on to us. (We know they’ll do that, right?) My point is that it’s immaterial. Anyone who knew enough to know DRM was in place also knew enough to work around DRM. And, sure, now that DRM doesn’t exist we can do the translation without having to worry about the FBI and ICE crashing through the door for our violating the DMCA. (Though I don’t think anyone cracking DRM for personal use only was losing any sleep over that possibility.)
Perhaps I’m cynical, but I see this sort of announcement as misdirection as we look at the Department of Justice suit and other issues facing ebooks. To whit, I’d like to make a couple other points.
First, the lack of DRM does not mean that files are going to be compatible going forward. This isn’t to say that I believe folks are out there putting together new, proprietary formats so we’ll all have to repurchase books. What I am saying is that anyone who believes that DRM free files guarantees this is simply being silly.
Second, the whole issue of price fixing has not been resolved by the settlement the DOJ has entered with a handful of publishers. As I’ve pointed out previously, the settlement still allows the publisher to set a price for the books (wholesale or retail, it doesn’t matter) and retailers are prevented from discounting the books so they sell at a loss. To maintain their current profit margins, publishers will be encouraged to raise their prices such that retailers cannot discount them enough to make ebooks more economically attractive than print books. As nearly as I can tell, as long as the heads of the publishers don’t have dinner to discuss the matter, they’ll be able to do the math and keep prices right where they are.
There is one hope for readers. The book market is what is known as a pull-market. This means that the products we desire are the ones that will be offered for sale. If readers choose to buy the books that are reasonably priced, and eschew books which are deceptively priced, or priced to protect sales of paper books, those high pricing tactics will stop. They become no longer viable or profitable.
Is losing DRM on some books a tiny victory? Sure, and you can celebrate it. For a short while. But if you let that distract you from the bigger issues and what’s really going on, you do yourself far more mischief than you could ever desire. If the democratization that technology provides is to reach its full potential, we have to keep up pressure on the important issues. Once we have them solved, everything else falls into place.