The Society of Authors recently wrote to Ed Vaizey (MP; Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries) to pass on their views about e-book lending by public libraries.

As an author I didn't feel that their views represented mine in this matter; and as a librarian I was concerned about the subtext of their message. As a result I also wrote to Ed Vaizey to add some additional information to the debate. I will reproduce my letter below.

14th May 2012

Dear Ed Vaizey, MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries,

I am aware that the Society of Authors recently wrote to you requesting a meeting to discuss e-books and library lending. The Society of Authors does a lot of good and I have great respect for their work. However, I take issue with the claim that they can "put forward the views of authors in relation to e-book lending". This implies that their views match those of all authors, which is simply not true. The Society of Authors only represents 'traditionally' published authors. Many authors, even bestselling ones, are moving away from that model.

The fact that they represent 'traditionally' published authors inevitably means that they also have the viewpoint of traditional publishers, and therefore a particular perspective on DRM (Digital Rights Management, or more accurately Digital Restrictions Management). However, the issue of DRM is not as clear-cut as they would portray, and has a huge impact on libraries and library patrons, as well as a negative impact on authors and publishers. I am both an author and a librarian, and therefore see two sides of the issue of e-book lending. Therefore it seemed appropriate to provide an alternative viewpoint, which I will do below, using the headings from the Society of Authors' letter.

2. Piracy

The Society says authors are worried about e-book lending because 'pirates can circumvent the DRM'. However, this is akin to being worried about leaving the house because criminals might attack you. The truth is that pirates can circumvent any DRM system, or bypass it in other ways such as OCR scanning of print copies. There is no way of stopping this. The more money that is wasted on DRM, the greater the impact on one category of user only - those who are honest and want to buy your work. (There is a humorous treatment of the issue here). It makes no sense to penalise and alienate our core users. I have discussed many of the key arguments on my writing blog under the label of DRM, but will reiterate a few here.

Libraries do great work in introducing readers to authors, enhancing literacy, and helping to build social cohesion. It is in an author's interest to gain as wide a readership as possible. It is therefore certainly not true that all authors want DRM on their work. Good examples include bestselling international authors such as Neil Gaiman and Paulo Coelho.

There are many people who would argue that despite publishers pushing for DRM, they are short-sighted and in doing so and are harming themselves: e.g. see this article and another along similar lines.

As a librarian I have to deal with the issues of DRM on e-books. On mailing lists for librarians I have seen threads trying to unravel why things don't work properly for our users (the answer invariably turns out to be DRM). An example close to home for me is the e-books pilot in Wales. DRM on the e-books means that library users can't read the e-books on the most popular e-book reader, the Kindle, which is ridiculous since public money is being spent on materials which many library patrons cannot use. Not because the Kindle can't read the formats - as falsely implied in the FAQ I linked to - but because of the DRM.

Some industries have thrown out DRM (e.g. in music, where Sony gave it up and switched to DRM-free MP3 downloads), and others are seeing a huge reaction against it (e.g. the computer games industry). Even forward-thinking publishers are against DRM. Smashwords is a publisher of e-books which is seeing their business grow at a fantastic rate, yet they do not use DRM at all. In their FAQs they state:
What is Smashwords’ position on digital rights management (DRM)?
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.
They are not the only publisher doing this. has an excellent interview with Tim O' Reilly, the technology publisher, who has recently dropped DRM from all their e-books. When asked if he was worried about piracy, Tim replied:
"No. And so what? Let's say my goal is to sell 10,000 copies of something. And let's say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome? I think having 100,000 in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits. People who don't pay you generally wouldn't have paid you anyway. [...] I think having faith in that basic logic of the market is important. Besides, DRM interferes with the user experience. [...] I just think the whole logic of DRM is flawed."
It should be clear that DRM leads to a worse customer experience and increased costs, with no inconvenience for pirates. The key to sales is a good relationship with your customers and not putting unnecessary barriers in their place. This applies to purchases, or loans from libraries. A healthy economy and fair remuneration need not be based on the flawed principles of DRM; selling things which are inherently broken is not a good business practice.

3. Pricing and Lending Limits

The Society of Authors says "Sales of library e-books by publishers to libraries must be on a basis which fairly remunerates an author for the added usage -- and loans must be controlled and limited."

The ominous aspect of 'controlling' and 'limiting' is again referring to the application of DRM systems, the most notorious being Harper Collins publishers who set their e-books to 'self destruct' after a number of loans - something opposed by librarians. For some examples of libraries discussing issues of DRM restrictions see this and this.

I have discussed this topic already in great detail above. The point is that DRM is pointless and counter-productive for authors and publishers, an inconvenience for customers, and an obstacle for librarians.

By all means set pricing in a way that fairly remunerates authors; charge more for a library-loanable e-book than would be charged for a purchase by an individual consumer; but then keep the system simple and DRM-free.

4. PLR

I agree with what the Society of Authors say about Public Lending Right - a notional sum to a book's author for each loan of their work to the public seems fair. The author benefits from extra income and increased readership, and the public benefit from a wider range of works and increased literacy. However, there is one area where the attempt to apply the printed PLR system to e-books does not work as a straight comparison. With printed-book PLR as it stands, any author with a printed work available can get their book into a library and apply for PLR. Unfortunately the systems currently used for library lending of e-books are not open, due to a commercial intermediary being involved as a gatekeeper. E.g. companies such as Overdrive automatically exclude many authors since they only work with a limited range of publishers. If PLR is based on loans indicated by the statistics from these companies then many authors of e-books would not be able to receive PLR simply because of the publisher lottery, or because they refuse to have DRM added to the e-book versions of their works. So although I support the issue of e-book PLR there are aspects of the infrastructure which would need even more careful consideration than is the case for printed works PLR.

An alternative to PLR could just be a larger outright payment when a library buys an e-book for loan to the public, and making sure that a fair proportion of that money goes back to the author. It might even turn out that this leads to greater remuneration for the author and a simpler system of administration as opposed to the current system of PLR.

As I said at the start, the Society of Authors is a respected institution, and I think their views are well worth listening to on most issues relating to authors. However, on the issue of DRM the views of a number of authors - along with librarians and customers - might be at variance. Since this issue of e-book lending involves all three categories I wanted to provide the alternative view.

Yours sincerely,
Karl Drinkwater

Updates since the first posting.

Many thanks to people responding with updates, especially @libalyson. I hadn't realised that there was so much positive work going on in the e-book world to cut out DRM. This backs up my arguments above about the false step DRM represents in the digital world, and leaves hope that DRM could eventually disappear along with the control-freakery it represents. I'll only include a couple of the links I have been sent.

From The Bookseller, 25th April 2012:
"Tor UK is to follow its US sibling by taking Digital Rights Management (DRM) off its e-book titles. US science fiction list Tor become one of the first mainstream imprints to say it intended to put its books out without DRM. Tor, Forge, Orb, Starscape and Tor Teen—all parts of Macmillan USA—said that from July 2012, its entire list of e-books would be made available DRM-free. The move to abandon DRM on e-books has built up recently with industry observers believing that such a move could help to break Amazon's hold over the fast-growing e-book market, while enabling e-book lovers to shift e-books more easily between devices."
From The Bookseller, 3rd May 2012:
"Duncan Baird Publishers is to remove digital rights management (DRM) from its future and backlist titles, in order to put readers “at the heart” of its focus. The UK publisher of illustrated books in the fields of mind, body and spirit and cookery said it took the decision to remove DRM from 150 of its titles and 80 of its future titles so that readers were not restricted as to which e-reader they could read the books from."

If you are a reader, please support these publishers and buy their books! Show that you appreciate their approach and the positive way they are willing to treat you.

Another update, 30th May 2012:

Today I received a reply from the Library and Arts Policy Officer at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport. The main part of it says:
"The points that you raise in relation to piracy and DRM, and pricing and lending limits have been noted by the libraries team. The Government supports the use of e-lending by public libraries and sees it as important for libraries to offer updated services matching technological developments as library users increasingly come to see e-books as forming part of the basic service. However, the government does not wish to be prescriptive as to how libraries should set up their e-lending services which must be tailored to local needs. Thank you also for your views on the Public Lending Right (PLR) and e-books, and on an alternative to PLR, which have been noted by the team."