image by rebopper

Harper Collins have been in the news a lot recently due to their plans to apply limits to e-books, preventing access after those limits are reached. This has led to boycott calls, lots of discussion, and even attempts to try and set some kind of standard on what is actually being sold.

The problem is that DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) is a hassle for librarians, e-book users, even publishers. DRM creates a barrier, and many publishers and distributors seem to underestimate the importance of goodwill in their customers. DRM doesn't stop people copying things (whether e-books, films, music or games): it encourages it.

One personal example. At the height of the music DRM craze I stopped buying any music. Sony's actions annoyed customers and destroyed faith. Eventually Sony et al backed down and you could buy DRM-free MP3s online at fair prices. I rejoiced and started buying again, and now have a huge, fully legal MP3 collection. Now music can be heard free via many services, subsidised by advertising and subscriptions, or they can be bought cheaply and DRM-free. The lesson is clear: that many customers will pay for something that they feel they then own, but not for things that can be taken back from them, which is what DRM sets out to do. I have similar examples from film, games, software and e-books.

In terms of e-books, we are on the verge of a new world, where many things can exist digitally. Ease of access and flexibility promise so much, though my personal interest is in the potential to reduce humanity's impact on the environment. If a thousand copies of a book can be made available and distributed around the world electronically, rather than via cutting down a group of trees and processing the pulp then transporting it around the globe, then fantastic. Physical books won't die away, but I can see them becoming prized luxury items as they once were, whilst most consumption takes place electronically. Again, DRM is a threat to this. If I had a say in the online publishing of my own books I would wish them to be DRM-free, offering the greatest flexibility to the user to convert them to other formats, and to archive them for the future. Yes, some people will still choose to pirate copies. There is nothing you can do about that (the Media Piracy in Emerging Economies report is a good reality check) except provide the best possible value and service to those who are paying customers. Forget the pirates. Who knows, some of the pirates might come to love your work and start buying it, if it is priced reasonably. It happened with music sharing, as anyone who ever shared an album or received an audiocassette of taped songs from a friend might attest. Even though I would like to make a living from my writing I do not support DRM, and even some successful authors take this view. Some have even used them to make their own life easier!

Back to Harper Collins and public libraries. Libraries are hugely important to publishers. Many of the books I own are by authors I first read after borrowing one of their books from a library. Without the library, I would not have bought the books. Public libraries are not just educational institutions: they are shop fronts for publishers, and should be embraced by the publishing industry as such.

The libraries, like all customers, want permanent access to the e-books they buy. Harper Collins worries about losing out on sales. However, Harper Collins could just charge more for the e-books than the printed copies so as to maintain their profit. Then everyone wins. This is a new age and we should take advantage of the benefits of new technology such as e-books, where there are almost insubstantial costs per item for production and distribution. Make a good hassle-free product, sell it at a fair price, get people on your side, develop loyalty. Just focus on the majority and treat them as responsible people. By making it as easy as possible for people to buy and download books which they can keep forever, why on earth would anyone sensible then want to torrent?

The alternative future is one of DRM, region-locking, forced updates, online activation, threatening adverts against piracy - all of which can be bypassed, and all of which irritate legitimate consumers. Now that books are catching up with technology we are seeing the publishers following these same restrictive practices and embarking on DRM arms-races. But that is a future where no-one will win.

That's why approaches such as that taken by Smashwords, the e-book site, is so refreshing. In their FAQs they say:

"We think DRM is counterproductive because it treats lawful customers like criminals. Consumers value non-DRMed content and there's a growing body of evidence that digital content producers who have abandoned DRM are enjoying greater sales. Many buyers of ebooks resent DRM because it limits their ability to fully own and enjoy their digital book. At Smashwords, we only publish DRM-free works."
I love books, films, music and games. Without all these forms of story telling my life would be poorer. I want to see the industries thrive. And I genuinely believe that restrictive DRM is a crucial factor in preventing that. Ditch the DRM and let art live.

Update 17 March 2011: read more on this subject at the Smashwords blog, which has some excellent extra arguments and anecdotes: and it links back to me! :-)

image by Nina Paley