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Trade raises DRM concerns

 

Strong differences have emerged within the trade over the effectiveness of Digital Rights Management (DRM) on e-book files.

The issue came to the fore as divided views were voiced on DRM at this week's FutureBook Conference (3rd December). Little, Brown c.e.o. Ursula Mackenzie, who is also president of the Publishers Association, stressed the importance of preserving DRM in order to protect copyright and to inhibit file-sharing between mainstream readers. "Authors have to eat," she said.

But Pottermore c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne said the absence of DRM on Harry Potter e books had led to a 25% reduction in digital piracy of the novels, while Pan Macmillan m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson said that removing DRM had not increased piracy on Tor titles.

Hachette UK's position on DRM firmed up over the summer when it sent letters to agents and authors saying that it would include new wording in its contracts requiring them to guarantee e-books will not be sold in other territories free of DRM. Agents have now expressed concern over this, describing the new clause as "unworkable".

On Hachette's new DRM clause and its negotiations with agents, Hachette c.e.o. Tim Hely Hutchinson said: "Literary agents and Hachette broadly want the same thing, which is protection of authors' copyright. We sometimes have slightly different ideas about how to get there but discussions are generally very collegial and that's how we always want it. There is a growing appreciation among authors and agents that, if you make arrangements for a lot of people to have free access to a work, those asked to pay for it will expect it to be cheaper."

But agents said they were unhappy with the rule, thought to apply wherever Hachette acquires e-book rights. "Hachette stipulates that if we sell them rights, we have to impose the same DRM obligations on other publishers and the way it is formatted is to try to stop piracy," said one agent who preferred to speak anonymously. "We can't do it because of a lot of US and European publishers don't use DRM. In the real world, we can't guarantee it."

James Gill of United Agents commented: "What Hachette are asking of authors . . . is effectively to impose a right of approval by them of an author's publishing elsewhere, particularly in the US. It's unreasonable and unmerited - and totally unworkable."

It is not known if other publishers are looking at similar clauses to enforce DRM, but some did indicate that they were open to further experimentation. Speaking after the conference, Redmayne told The Bookseller that going DRM-free in order to sell direct to readers was "a price worth paying", saying: "I am advocating that publishers should make areas of their publishing DRM-free and experiment with it."

Lee Harris, publisher at Osprey company Angry Robot, which has never had DRM on its titles, claimed DRM does not work as a piracy deterrent, saying he had never had any "push back" from authors or agents on the issue. He said: "It really is the bigger publishers that are clinging desperately to this liferaft. A lot of smaller publishers are advocating DRM-free now or at least are not worried about piracy to a large degree."

Penguin Digital UK m.d. Anna Rafferty did not rule out testing out DRM-free titles, saying: "Penguin is committed to making our content available, and easily accessible, for as many readers as possible while doing all we can to protect our authors' copyright. We'll continue to experiment with various models to find the best possible solution."

Profile Books digital publishing director Michael Bhaskar said his opinion was that the "rationale for dropping DRM is growing", but stressed Profile had no current plans to go DRM-free. He said: "I definitely think it is a great audience building thing," but added: "It is a very difficult step for publishers."

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I note with interest that the justification for DRM has now mutated into 'inhibiting casual sharing' rather than stopping piracy. DRM advocates now generally accept that DRM doesn't stop people determined to share ebooks, so the idea now seems to be that it's to prevent you from sending a copy to your aunt Mabel or emailing it to your friends.

I don't think this is a remotely coherent argument.

First, casual sharing is something that we've been doing for years quite happily with print books. We all lend books to friends and family. (I understand that there's a difference involved here, because sharing my ebook with Auntie Mabel doesn't deprive me of the ability to read it, but we're likely talking about I book I just finished reading.) One question I would ask of DRM advocates is, if you could somehow apply unbreakable DRM to print books - preventing lending or reselling somehow - would you want that? Or would your customers hate that?

Secondly, I don't see how DRM prevents casual sharing, given that the technical expertise required to defeat it is so very minimal. It's only a fraction more technical expertise than is required just to find your Kindle books in the device's internal storage, extract and share them in the first place, DRM or not. How many Kindle users know how to sideload an EPUB? Removing DRM on Kindle files would leave those mainstream users in practically the same position they are in now. It's an absolutely tiny speedbump.

If people want to share their DRM protected EPUBs, five minutes of Google will tell them how. Hell, five minutes of Google will likely find the file with the DRM already stripped off.

Now, the reason I don't like DRM is nothing really to do with loving piracy or hating copyright. It's simply that it ties my books to a single retailer and their ecosystem, and turns my ownership of them into a kind of weaksauce license. I have some books bought from Amazon, and some books bought from iBooks, and I can't have them all in the same place. I can't read them in my preferred ereader. I can't lend them to a friend, I can't pass them on to my heirs, and if the retailer goes under or takes a dislike to me I lose access to them forever. Plus, it entrenches our dependence, as consumers and as publishers, on the big tech companies.

There are so many downsides to DRM, and the upsides are so vague and implausible, that I can't really see why anyone is still defending it. I think the war is won, actually, and it's just taking a long time for the message to reach the top of the ladder.

I note with interest that the justification for DRM has now mutated into 'inhibiting casual sharing' rather than stopping piracy. DRM advocates now generally accept that DRM doesn't stop people determined to share ebooks, so the idea now seems to be that it's to prevent you from sending a copy to your aunt Mabel or emailing it to your friends.

I don't think this is a remotely coherent argument.

First, casual sharing is something that we've been doing for years quite happily with print books. We all lend books to friends and family. (I understand that there's a difference involved here, because sharing my ebook with Auntie Mabel doesn't deprive me of the ability to read it, but we're likely talking about I book I just finished reading.) One question I would ask of DRM advocates is, if you could somehow apply unbreakable DRM to print books - preventing lending or reselling somehow - would you want that? Or would your customers hate that?

Secondly, I don't see how DRM prevents casual sharing, given that the technical expertise required to defeat it is so very minimal. It's only a fraction more technical expertise than is required just to find your Kindle books in the device's internal storage, extract and share them in the first place, DRM or not. How many Kindle users know how to sideload an EPUB? Removing DRM on Kindle files would leave those mainstream users in practically the same position they are in now. It's an absolutely tiny speedbump.

If people want to share their DRM protected EPUBs, five minutes of Google will tell them how. Hell, five minutes of Google will likely find the file with the DRM already stripped off.

Now, the reason I don't like DRM is nothing really to do with loving piracy or hating copyright. It's simply that it ties my books to a single retailer and their ecosystem, and turns my ownership of them into a kind of weaksauce license. I have some books bought from Amazon, and some books bought from iBooks, and I can't have them all in the same place. I can't read them in my preferred ereader. I can't lend them to a friend, I can't pass them on to my heirs, and if the retailer goes under or takes a dislike to me I lose access to them forever. Plus, it entrenches our dependence, as consumers and as publishers, on the big tech companies.

There are so many downsides to DRM, and the upsides are so vague and implausible, that I can't really see why anyone is still defending it. I think the war is won, actually, and it's just taking a long time for the message to reach the top of the ladder.