Wednesday, 11 January 2012

"Would you like your e-books with or without DRM, Sir?" Piracy, profit, publishers, progress and paranoia


Sales of e-books continue to rise. New formats of e-book reader keep being released. But that's enough good news. Instead let's talk about DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) again, since I've read a number of relevant articles recently. As a re-cap, I have discussed it in the following blog posts:
I've given examples of authors who have views on the subject which are similar to mine in the past, and I came across another recently, Harry Freedman in his article Why I'm Not Worried by E-book Piracy. I don't agree with every point, but it is certainly true that the 'threat of piracy' is a red herring in most cases, a distraction. It leads to money being pumped into new DRM systems and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby more and more people are put off the castrated legitimate offering. The ultimate twist is that DRM doesn't work at all in the way it is intended to, since all DRM can be stripped out, whatever the media; yet the more complex the DRM is - in order to try and prevent that - the more complications it causes for customers, and the more money has to be spent on it, like an arms war that cannot be won. This cartoon backs up that point in a humorous way. One of the things I love about indie outfits (whether game makers, musicians, or writers) is that they often avoid including DRM, meaning the experience of buying from them goes much more smoothly, and I am left with the desire to continue to support them. I think this is a large factor for many would-be purchasers. After all, DRM says, "I don't trust you". It is an awful statement to begin any relationship with. Have you ever been in a shop where they watch you like a hawk? How does it make you feel? What about when you go into another shop where you're trusted, with a 'take a penny, leave a penny' pot, where they don't mind if you pop back later with the 10p you were short of? I know which shop I would prefer to go back to. Publishers should focus on the customer and getting their books into as many hands as possible, not lock their doors and refuse to go out in case someone robs their house.



That is the situation described in Publishers vs. Libraries: An E-Book Tug of War by Randall Stross. It is worrying to see into the paranoid mindsets of some publishers. For example, the public borrowing e-books from libraries
"is a source of great worry for publishers. In their eyes, borrowing an e-book from a library has been too easy. Worried that people will click to borrow an e-book from a library rather than click to buy it, almost all major publishers in the United States now block libraries’ access to the e-book form of either all of their titles or their most recently published ones."
To discourage easy access via libraries, publishers introduce "more inconvenience for the borrower or raise the price for the library purchaser".

However, again we see that this viewpoint harms the publishers in the long run, and benefits those with more open views, who embrace technology and refuse to be focussed on the negatives:
"While many major publishers have effectively gone on strike, more than 1,000 smaller publishers, who don’t have best-seller sales that need protection, happily sell e-books to libraries. That means the public library has plenty of e-books available for the asking — no waiting."
This leads to an excellent questions, asked by Glyn Moody: If Libraries Didn't Exist, Would Publishers Be Trying To Kill Book Lending? He points out that, based on the current big publishers' mindset described above, if print libraries didn't already exist then the publishers would certainly do all they could to prevent public libraries from being formed today. The article goes on to agree with my views that DRM can increase piracy, and to again highlight the difference between inflexible, paranoid big publishing, and open indie/small publishing:
"A familiar pattern emerges. Small, innovative publishers who are ready to adapt, reap the benefits by meeting the growing demand for ebooks at local libraries – and doubtless picking up knock-on sales as a result. Meanwhile, big, sclerotic publishers resist trying out new business models, preferring to make the use of digital formats for lending as inconvenient as possible – in the forlorn hope that readers will just give up and buy something. We all know how that story ends."
The first paragraph of the article actually makes a good conclusion, and links to my final section:
"Against the background of today's war on sharing, exemplified by SOPA and PIPA, traditional libraries underline an inconvenient truth: allowing people to share things – principally books in the case of libraries – does not lead to the collapse of the industry trying to sell those same things."
E-books are relatively recent (at least, as mass-market options). It is informative to look at other industries that have dealt with technology changes, then got caught up with DRM issues and a sad obsession with piracy and litigation. Have you heard of SOPA, mentioned above? We should all be concerned about it: it is part of a set of controversial legislation proposals in the US that would give corporations huge power to censor almost any site on the Internet. Or as Steve Blank puts it in his excellent article SOPA Is a Symbol of the Movie Industry's Failure to Innovate,
"This controversial anti-piracy legislation is all about studios and other corporations making excuses for their technological backwardness and looking out for their short-term profit."
He makes a convincing case for the fact that the biggest danger is not piracy, but the short-sightedness and reactionary attitudes of the profit-driven multimedia corporations: 
"The studios don't even pretend that this legislation benefits consumers. It's all about protecting short-term profit." 
The article has an interesting section showing that, again and again, the industry feared new technology unnecessarily, adopted stances which were stupid, and wasted money fighting new developments.

It seems that the lessons of history are not always being learned, at least by the large, traditional, wealthy but static organisations. Thankfully their failures leave a gap in the market in which small presses, independent games companies and film makers, and musicians can benefit.

Updates
Updates already? Pah. I should be doing my homework...
  • From the same blog, a summary of some of the e-book market issues from last year.
  • This piece from The Guardian, stating that the greed and short-sightedness of big publishers is leading people to buy less, very similar to my arguments above and elsewhere.
  • More on SOPA, and the implications for free access to e-books via Project Gutenberg et al.
  • Still on SOPA and censorship, I noticed the message below slipped into the bottom of some Google search results yesterday when I was looking for some advice on drivers in Windows 7. It's a good example of US policy censoring the web even for non-US citizens, which is barmy. If bills like SOPA get passed then we could expect to see this kind of global censorship multiplied massively.
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    2 comments:

    David said...

    There are very strong economic reasons why ebooks should be sold WITHOUT digital rights management...

    See this article for details:

    http://blog.cruxpublishing.co.uk/post/15612378800/should-ebooks-be-sold-with-digital-rights-management

    Karl said...

    Thanks David, that's an interesting dialogue that covers many of the main arguments. Particularly the one to do with coverage/getting read, which for a new writer is the most difficult part to kickstart. It reminds me of giving someone a tape or CD of music you have put together. Often that would lead me to discover new bands and then buy their albums.