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.

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17 Responses to “Is the removal of DRM really significant?”

  1. “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.”

    This cuts both ways, I would think.

    If they’re not computer literate enough to know how to convert a file to another format, why assume that they’re computer literate enough to know that there would be an issue converting to another format? The programs that most non-computer people use are available across platforms. Or something comparable is, at least (web browsers, for example).

    The standard example: My grandmother. I showed her my Kindle and she liked it. She might get a reader and use it. Whenever she finds something that she can’t get working right away, she calls my parents to ask them to come over and make it work.

    Why assume that if she got a Kindle and bought a Tor book that she wanted to convert to another format, she wouldn’t just call up my dad and assume that he’d be able to convert it?

  2. DRM is a nerd shibboleth. Rarely matters to anyone else but nerds.

    What we don’t have evidence on yet is whether this is going to increase sales. It will certainly simplify piracy. Now even the technically illiterate can share their books with all their social media friends without having to figure out DRM stripping.

    But another nerd shibboleth is that piracy has no impact on sales. Which may have been true 10 years ago when piracy was hard – but now those DRM free books hosted on other sites are but a google search away – it isn’t just the “hardcore pirates” that pirate – but most of your average “wouldn’t steal stuff in real life even if there was no chance of being caught” people as well.

  3. Why assume your grandmother would want the book in another format? She wouldn’t. She doesn’t need it in another format.

    I think it’s great that your family has got it worked out as to who does the IT work (as we have in my family), but I truly think the need to reformat an ebook is an issue that just won’t come up.

  4. The thing I’d like with dropping DRM would be the ability to lend books to friends (with a Kindle or Kindle app like me). It’s not nearly as important as pricing, but would still be nice since I have a lot of friends who have similar reading tastes. I’m not holding my breath on real changes any time soon though.

  5. The fact that tools like Calibre are largely aimed at tech-savvy consumers does not take away from the fact that DRM removal is significant.

    Non tech-savvy consumers have been buying smartphones and tablets in large numbers and it’s not inconceivable that some enterprising people will create apps that will let consumers convert their ebook collections to work with their e-reader of choice.

    In fact, e-reader manufacturers may also create devices with an import facility from other formats which do not have DRM. It suits them to alloow people to consolidate their collections for a single device.

  6. Insektor, look up Eric Flint’s essays (yes, plural) on the topic of ebook piracy. I’m on my phone, or I’d link to the site – it can be found on baen.com’s Free Library IIRC. FYI, he’s an author and editor there, and he’s a STRONG opponent of DRM; Baen had been DRM-free since they got into ebooks over a decade ago, and they have done banner business AND get better sales for their deadtree books as well. Piracy a problem? Apparently, not so much.

  7. I think it could be of long term-significance if it means Tor has plans to directly to consumers, without DRM, rather like O’Reilly does with their technical books. If you whitelist O’Reilly’s email address on your Kindle page and provide them with your Kindle’s email address, they can send the ebooks you buy from them directly to your Kindle. That kind of convenience is what made the Kindle catch on in the first place.

  8. “Why assume your grandmother would want the book in another format? She wouldn’t. She doesn’t need it in another format.”

    My mother’s family shares books. Grandma also shares files, including Word and Publisher files that she puts into PDFs to distribute. She knows that files can be converted into other files (but needs help doing it) and that they can be read on different devices.

    I’m not assuming. I know how she behaves and then extending that behavior to ebooks. Unless people don’t think ebooks are really books and thus have no desire in sharing with a friend/family member?

    But you didn’t respond to my point about the logical foundation of your statement, you targeted my grandmother’s motivations.

    Except that motivation is irrelevant to the first part of your post. If computer illiterate people would never want to convert a file, then why did you bring up the difficulty of it? Why not just say “Most ereader owners won’t want to convert between file formats”?

    You didn’t do that. You said they wouldn’t be able to, which presupposes that there is a desire.

  9. Mike: Assuming grandma doesn’t die first, she might switch from an e-ink Kindle (which is useless for video and the web) to a full-fledged tablet that might not be a Kindle. Of course, Amazon will probably provide a Kindle app for that platform.

    On the other hand, she might have bought a Microsoft ereader, and (like Divx DVD DRM) suddenly find that she can’t get to her books on a new reader when Microsoft shuts down the service this summer.

    Insektor: Nerds are Tor’s biggest and most reliable customer for midlist works. Inconveniencing your customer base isn’t a model for success.

    You’re commenting on a SF and fantasy blog, using “Insektor” as a handle, and throwing around words like “shibboleth.” Et tu, Nerdus?

  10. For the most part, I agree with you. I applaud any publisher (of books, music, or software) ditching DRM. DRM is a waste. Those who are going to pirate content will find ways around it. Those who don’t pirate will find it an impediment (in some cases) to using content they’ve legitimately acquired. One publisher ditching DRM isn’t a big story. All eBook publishers dtiching DRM would be a big story. All of them ditching DRM and backing a single, universal eBook format, THAT would be a great story. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

  11. Jared,

    From what you’ve mentioned about your Grandmother, she’s already outside the group of dedicated ereader customers to whom I referred. You point out that she already shares files within the family AND “knows that files can be converted into other files.” She’s not in the subset of users to whom I refer. And, yet, you note that she needs help doing the conversions.

    The reason I didn’t say that “most ereader owners won’t want to convert between file formats” [emphasis mine] is because I don’t know if they’ll want to or not. What I do know is this: Most do not know what format their ebooks are in, nor do they care as long as the ebooks work on the device they’ve purchased. When or if they do become aware that there are different formats, and once they develop a desire to change the format of their books because of whatever reason, I am confident in suggesting that, without help or a computer—computers which are not required for the successful use of an ereader—they won’t be able to find the programs nor run them without help.

    My original wording perhaps was not as clear as it could be. No slight was intended toward your family or grandmother. I do a lot of the IT work in my family, and I think it’s great when families help each other out and do cool things with tech. Then again, based on my experience with folks, I am confident that until new tools come along, the conversion opportunities are really a sideshow.

  12. Mike, thanks for talking about DRM and Tor today. You keep me on my toes and informed, which I appreciate so much. I may be one of the readers you’re talking about, or at least I can present my own point of view as a consumer of books.

    Personally, I love computers, and I love reading. But I’m short on time and patience. I don’t want to learn how to convert ebooks from one ereader format to another, even if there is software to do it. So even though there’s software out there, it’s a hassle to me. And I don’t have a willing IT person in my family who wants to do this for me. So unfortunately, I’m not even as well off as “grandma.”

    To the bigger issue of democratization: I agree with Andrew’s comment above. As a reader, I worry that if I buy an ebook today, I’ll eventually be unable to read it because the file won’t be readable on newer software or hardware. Or that my chosen e-reader will one day become extinct, and I’ll lose my ebook collection and have to start all over. That’s likely with hardware because even the best piece of tech eventually breaks down.

    Since I love to go back to books and reread them, I feel like I’m going to lose my collection and have to buy it all over again in newer formats. This is already the case with music and movies, and the result is that I don’t buy personal copies of things unless I love them. This wasn’t the case with me for books in the past; it is now. And I hate it. But I feel like I haven’t got much of a choice.

    I hate that this situation makes it harder to grow my own book collection and also get money into the hands of the writers who are creating art for my consumption. But I’m reluctant to get any e-reader right now until I see where the technology, software, and book formats are going. As well as the pricing.

    I suspect most consumers aren’t even bothering to think about it at this level. They’re just out there buying the Kindle because it’s the “coolest” of the ereaders (the biggest status symbol), it’s the most commonly used right now, and because Amazon has the biggest bookstore. It’s kind of like VHS vs. Betamax, or Blu-Ray vs. anything else. If you get the smaller tech, you’re going to be out of luck soon. So ultimately DRM-removal is just a tiny issue because the average consumer is going to be using Kindles for the foreseeable future, don’t you think?

  13. “All of them ditching DRM and backing a single, universal eBook format, THAT would be a great story. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.”

    That seems such a silly statement, except for perhaps the format issues.

    The first MP3 player was introduced in 1997 and if if it wasn’t already being DRMed mp3s soon would be. By 2009 Apple, the largest supplier of digital music, stopped DRM on all music sold and any retailer who hadn’t already soon followed suit. Once you lack DRM conversion *is* easier and more tools support conversion. You don’t hear people talke about what format their music is in because it just doesn’t matter anymore.

    Why should eBooks follow any significantly longer timeline if the first of the big publishers are heading DRM free now? The first Kindle was released in 2007. If anything the pace is accelerated.

  14. Jake,

    “All of them ditching DRM and backing a single, universal eBook format, THAT would be a great story. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.”

    That seems such a silly statement, except for perhaps the format issues.

    The reason there is the word “and” in the first sentence of mine, which you quoted, is because those two clauses are inclusive, not exclusive. Therefore, the format issue is included with the universal of dropping of DRM, invalidating your comment via the dependent clause in your comment.

    My point was, and is, that adopting a universal ebook format would make sense. MP3 were popular and widely circulated before and in spite of DRM. The removal of DRM did nothing to increase their popularity. With ebooks, the divide between epub and mobi means that hardware platform segregation will continue. Adopting a universal format would work against Amazon, unless it was the mobi format, in which case it would work against everyone else.

    The PC/Mac divide is the same way. Sure, there’s software that will allow me to emulate a PC on my Mac. The fact is, that for the same amount of money it would cost me to buy the software needed to run the emulator and the time it would take to make it work, it’s easier for me to buy a refurb PC to run whatever programs I need. As prices for readers drop, I suspect that’s a solution many folks will adopt. (In fact, I know I am not alone in segregating reading material on devices according to type, just for ease of use.)

    Why would the evolution of ebooks take longer than music did? Because MP3s had no viable competing format at the time players were introduced. This isn’t the case with ebooks. As long as folks are making money off the difference, the difference will remain.

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