I hate DRM. And since it’s Read an eBook Week, I figure it would serve well to discuss one of the facets of digital publishing that stops people from trying out ebooks, after, of course, the high cost of the ebook readers: DRM.
DRM is Digital Rights Management, or, more appropriately, Driving Readers Mad. The security wrapped around ebooks that allegedly prevents me from sharing them really just prevents me from owning the actual book itself. Given the various types of formats and the varying degrees of security embedded within them, DRM means I’m being sold a format and not the actual book. Moreover, when something goes wrong, and with computers, something always does, the honest consumer is the one who gets screwed.
Consider this email I received a few weeks ago:
I have a question/problem about/with ebooks and acrobat DRM.
First of all I made the huge mistake of purchasing an ebook on my work computer. I placed it on a junk drive since I only read it on my work laptop.
Here’s the problem: the damn laptop died and it had to be reconfigured. Now I can’t finish reading the stupid book because it says I’m not reading the file from the same computer. But it is the same computer.
The next thing is my sister is giving me her old Sony Reader and I was going to download all my ebooks to but now they won’t open.
I asked Jane for her wisdom on this one, and her reply was simple:
You have only a few options, one of which requires breaking the law. The first question you have to answer is what format are your ebooks in? If they are all in Adobe and are “locked” by the software then you need to authenticate your new computer and redownload the books after you’ve got permission from Adobe via the internet to read the books you purchased.
The bad news is that unless you have a newer Sony (model 505 or 700), you can’t read any of the Adobe files that have DRM. The old Sony Readers simply don’t have that capability. What now you ask? If you really want to read the files you have legitimately purchased, you have to break the law.
You see, according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, you aren’t supposed to circumvent DRM. In order to read the files, though, you have to circumvent DRM.
Forcing consumers to jump through multiple hoops to read a damn book is not a way to win customers in a down market. And when vendors and distributors have a big fight and disassociate with one another, forcing consumers to jump through more hoops to attain the actual content they paid for, it gets even more ridiculous. I don’t at any time expect that Barnes and Noble would suddenly decide to come in to my house and repossess all the books I own, yet ebook “owners” were scrambling to redownload and potentially strip the DRM off ebook files so that their books weren’t suddenly inaccessible and unavailable.
So, the DRM, it is Driving Readers Mad. And – heads up big pub houses! – readers notice when it’s not used. One way in which small publishers have kicked ass and taken names, and increased their sales through word-of-mouth from happy customers? DRM-Free files.
Oh noes! All those wee books, running around in the nude… where consumers own the damn content and not a format or DRM shell? HELL YES. WORD TO THE UP, BIG NAME PUBLISHERS. Take a lesson. Reader M wrote:
All my computers at home are Macs, and I don’t own any devices which read e-books of other formats, so PDFs are the format of choice for me. But I hatehatehate Adobe Digital Editions’ version of DRM. I mean, I loathe it with the power of a thousand burning nuns. So, although I’m practically tithing to Borders at this point, my consumption of ebooks has been quite limited.
Anyway, long story short, I clicked through to the Dreamspinner Press site through Smart Bitches and although they offer PDFs they have zero information on whether or not they’re ADE files or just plain old PDFs. So, I took a chance and purchased one of their PDF books and was so pleased to discover that it was DRM-free that I wanted to somehow let the Bitches at large know about it, in case they too hesitate to buy there because of a similar hatred of Adobe DRM.
When I asked Elizabeth North, Owner, Publisher, CEO, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer for Dreamspinner Press, she told me that the reason her files are DRM-free is simple. It comes from her “own hatred of DRM is the reason we’ve never used it. My feeling is it only annoys the honest people. People who are going to pirate ebooks will find away around DRM.”
So I asked her a few more questions about how going DRM-free has influenced her publishing decisions.
Sarah: Can you tell me what specifically prompted you to go DRM free, and what your authors and your customers have said?
Elizabeth:Dreamspinner chose not to DRM our eBook titles as a part of our desire to provide superior customer service. We have two major problems with DRM. One is functionality and the other is privacy.
DRM is designed to prevent piracy, but anyone with moderate programming skills can break it. For every major DRM format a simple web search will turn up dozens of free programs for stripping your files of DRM. A customer intent on redistributing a title will succeed with very little effort. The only people that DRM restricts is the honest readers. They can only download a title a certain number of times; can’t switch it between reading devices or are limited to how many devices they use; are prevented from converting it to other formats (printing a file or burning it to a disk) and are caught with unreadable files when they upgrade their computer or eBook reader. Books (even eBooks) should be read again and again and kept for as long as they provide enjoyment. The technology that supports them is ever changing and the eBooks need to stay functional. DRM doesn’t stop the thieves and causes endless headaches for the customer.
The issue of privacy just compounds everything stated above. Most DRM systems and proprietary formats require the reader to register to access the books they have purchased. Many deposit a tracking module that documents activity (sites the reader downloads from and titles read) without adequately informing the customer or giving them an option to opt out. With the prevalence of discrimination against people for sexual orientation, a choice to read anonymously is not just a convenience but a necessity, at least in our genre.
I’m amazed at the number of authors and readers that don’t even know what DRM is. We get many customer comments on the ease of access to our titles, frequently tied in with a complaint about ‘such and such’ site, but most of them aren’t aware that their problems are caused by a security addition. Kindle customers are well informed that non-DRM Mobi format files can be converted to their reader and actively search them out. Authors are the true injured party in copyright violation, but all of our authors support our reasoning for not implementing DRM. Ultimately happy customers buy more books and the type of reader that seeks out free pirated titles isn’t going to buy them in the first place.
Sarah: Have you noticed any uptick in sales for one format (you mentioned drm-free Mobi files for Kindles) or have customers told you they are reading with a particular device?
Elizabeth: I was raised old school by a father who ran a custom men’s suit store with the tailors in their shirt sleeves, pins in their mouth and a tape measure around their neck and heavy wooden hangers. (Boy am I dating myself.) If you make the customers happy, you have a business. DRM makes no one happy with the possible exceptions of the companies programming it and charging ridiculous sums to keep it up. Dreamspinner also will send you the right format if you accidentally purchase one you can’t read and have been known to replace a reader’s titles when their hard drive crashes and they hadn’t backed it up. I’m not going to make someone pay twice for the same title.
Our Adobe titles outsell all the others by far. There has been a slight jump in Mobi as the Kindle gains popularity, but the order is still 50 Adobe for every 3 MS Reader and 2 MobiPocket formats.
I also asked Angela James, Executive Editor at Sam Hain, about why Sam is DRM-free and why they made the decision to sell content without DRM:
Angela James: I don’t know if it’s been said, really, but epubs have been around for over a decade and I think part of the reason (probably the original reason) that DRM wasn’t used is because digital technology was so new, it either wasn’t an option for ebooks at that point, or people running the epubs didn’t know how to make it an option. So in that regard, I do think it’s more happenstance than conscious decision that led epublishers to not use DRM. And then, as more epublishers opened and grew, it was just…understood…in that business model that you didn’t use DRM.
But what I think all epublishers do know is that our business wouldn’t have grown the way it did if we’d made it difficult for readers to get the books, read the books and own the books. Digital books are still new, even though they’ve been around for years, and to make our product as attractive as possible, we knew/know we need to make it as accessible as possible. There’s disincentive for people to buy ebooks if we make it overly complicated. So epubs don’t use DRM and that makes our product attractive to consumers on a number of levels. We never get emails or are featured in blog posts [written by readers] swearing they’ll never purchase from us again because of DRM, we don’t make them feel like they don’t own the book so there’s less hesitation in buying, we don’t treat all customers as criminals because of the few who will abuse the non-DRM books, and we don’t make it difficult for them to keep/read/transfer the book from one device to another.
When I asked via Twitter which publishers didn’t use DRM, the list I received from JenMcJ is entirely made up of small presses: LooseID, Torquere Press, TotaleBound, Amber Quill, AspenMountain, Cobblestone Press, and MLR Press all publish DRM-free, not to mention Sam Hain (cousin to Sam Bucca, who also hates DRM) as well.
I find it interesting, though, that both Elizabeth North from Dreamspinner and Angela James from Samhain referenced one key point in their discussion detailing the rationale behind going DRM-free: customer service. Making it easy for readers to try ebooks, then keep reading ebooks, and re-read ebooks on other computers.
And even though Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster are going to release audiobooks in DRM-free format, and they arrived at that decison, according to the writer of that article, due to the influence of Amazon.com, ebooks from those publishers remain enclosed with DRM, forcing users like me to crackity crackelate them in order to make sure that, much like my purchasing a paper book made of three-dimensional matter, when I buy an eBook, I in fact buy a book. Not a format. A book. Enough of Driving Readers Mad already. Gimme my books, and no, I don’t want DRM with that.