With booksellers' pressure: DRM is now soft in Germany

With booksellers' pressure: DRM is now soft in Germany

'An Ever-Widening Industry Consensus'

Today, most of Germany's main publishing forces are, or soon will be, hard-DRM-free.

This morning, we had the first reports from Buchreport: Random House Germany has joined the other leading publishers there, citing "an ever-widening industry consensus." At The Bookseller, we have Anja Sieg's report here. As of 1st October, Verlagsgruppe Random House has announced that it will switch from "hard DRM" to "soft" or "social" DRM — digital watermarking.

Retailers, therefore, will have a choice as to whether to apply hard DRM, themselves. And booksellers are among the driving forces behind that "ever-widening industry consensus," as it has played out in Germany. Is there anything here suggesting a way forward in the UK, US or other markets on Digital Rights Management, DRM? Can we put together a context in which bookshops and bookstores and their customers and publishers might navigate this part of the digital dynamic in the future? Perhaps. The High Street may want to study what has happened. 

Briefly, Germany's booksellers have argued that if publishers didn't "soften" DRM — so that customers could easily use store-bought ebooks across devices of their choosing — then Amazon would ultimately "own" the ebook market and shut out the shops.

A Kindle ebook sold in Germany continues to be protected by Amazon's form of "hard" DRM, the Kindle file system which maintains its sales and distribution construct in what we term a "walled garden." That's not changing. But the Kindle system is so convenient for consumers to use that the fear has been that its dominance would rise if bookshops couldn't offer a genuinely manageable alternative for readers to use with their ebooks. 

The translation of the Random House Germany statement I'm seeing refers to digital watermarking as offering "a reasonable protection against misuse." Digital or "social" watermarking has been described by Martyn Daniels in Bookseller reports in the past, this way:

The social DRM is basically a watermark (visible or invisible) which is unique to each sale/loan and can be applied once, or across every page. It can detail both the terms and who bought it, as well as when and where they did so. 

That watermark is traceable, and improper use of the content to which it's applied, then, is trackable. And, of course, one of the longest-running elements of the debate has been who is being "locked out" (imperfectly, as we know) by "hard DRM"? Piracy sites do exist, and I've been contacted recently by self-publishing authors who told me they were finding their titles spuriously offered on some of those sites. But there is also a widespread opinion that simple consumer file sharing — akin to handing your copy of Go Set a Watchman to a friend or family member once you'd read it — is what hard DRM has blocked, much more frequently than it has slowed profiteering pirates.

And the focus may need to stand elsewhere, at least as we look at this development.

Ebooks, Yes, But Also Publishers And Booksellers 

Some advisors in-country emphasise that the German story is not "about" ebooks, per se: Instead, they say, it's about publishers needing the support of the nation's booksellers.

True, the news release from Random House Germany today includes the line, "We want to promote interest in digital reading further, and make it as simple as possible for readers to read ebooks." But ebooks are, in the aggregate, a relatively small percentage of the market in Germany. Print still is very powerful, it moves in bookstores, and those bookstores have had a good, hard stare at the industry. The industry has paid attention.

Other factors are in play, surely: Hard DRM costs something when publishers apply it, a small per-copy cost (I'm told between 15 and 22 cents per copy on average) but that adds up. 

But the repeated refrain is that "as simple as possible" is the part of the Random House statement to focus on. Consumers have had difficulty registering for permission to ease some hard-DRM restrictions on how broadly they could use their protected copies of content. The main source of complaint in the German developments around DRM seems to have come from the shops, speaking, as it were, on behalf of their customers who were reportedly annoyed and frustrated by such DRM restrictions and likely to bolt to Amazon if given too much hassle.

Literary agents in Germany, my colleagues tell me, felt particular pressure from both the shops and from the publishers, and have become willing to renegotiate contracts where needed to allow for a change in DRM format. 

Sambeth: Soft DRM 'Facilitates Readers'

Verlagsgruppe Random House CEO Frank Sambeth is quoted today by Buchreport as saying:

Abandoning harsh DRM facilitates readers and distributors dealing with ebook files, increases customer satisfaction, and reduces complexity. At the same time, traders and platforms can be supplied, which offer no hard DRM. With the conversion to soft DRM we join also an ever-widening industry consensus.

Of course, we've reported steadily on that 'ever-widening industry consensus" in Germany. 

Last month, Anja Sieg reported for us that Verlagsgruppe von Holtzbrinck had joined its fellow German publishing powers: 

Holtzbrinck is not the first German publishing group to exit DRM, but by far the largest. Swedish book and media Bonnier has also announced its German publishing operation Verlagsgruppe Bonnier (with Piper, Ullstein, Carlsen, arsEdition, Thienemann, Esslinger und Berlin Verlag) will make the change from July onwards this year. Other publishers which have decided to drop DRM this year include trade publishers Bastei Lübbe, Hoffmann und Campe and dtv.

As far back as April 2012, Bookseller editor Philip Jones was reporting that in the UK, Tor was following its US counterpart in removing DRM restrictions in July of that year. 

The move to abandon DRM on ebooks has built up recently with industry observers believing that such a move could help to break Amazon's hold over the fast-growing ebook market, while enabling ebook lovers to shift ebooks more easily between devices.

Particularly with the leadership of the author Cory Doctorow in the States, the science-fiction community and industry have been in the vanguard on DRM reform. In January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) announced Doctorow's engagement as a consultant in its Apollo 1201 Project, "a mission to eradicate DRM in our lifetime." The EFF's attention to the issue addresses it as a question of privacy and ownership rights. 

At the time, Doctorow was quoted explaining the project's name:

Apollo was a decade-long plan to do something widely viewed as impossible: go to the moon. Lots of folks think it's impossible to get rid of DRM. But it needs to be done. Unless we can be sure that our computers do what we tell them, and don't have sneaky programs designed to take orders from some distant corporation, we can never trust them. It's the difference between "Yes, master" and "I CAN'T LET YOU DO THAT DAVE."

And, let's not forget that there are companies that have long worked without hard DRM. Famously, for example, there's O'Reilly Media, where Tim O'Reilly has said: "At O'Reilly Media, we've always published our ebooks DRM free, following the advice of Lao Tzu, who said, 2500 years ago, 'Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.'" 

Last November, however, our Bookseller Digital Census survey revealed ongoing disagreement and variances in practice in Digital Rights Management:

There is no consensus on the thorny issue of Digital Rights Management either. One in five (19.8%) publishers say they have already removed DRM from their books, and a third (33.5%) have considered doing so—but nearly half (46.7%) have not. 

And that's not to say that it hasn't seemed at times as if something more in line with the German trend hasn't been in the offing in other markets. Instances of In 2013, for example, Olivia Solon at Wired UK reported on the then-controversial move by Pottermore to go without hard DRM on Harry Potter ebooks:

Currently, both Amazon and Apple have restricted their ebook files so that they can only be read on the Kindle and the iPad respectively. But in order for Kindle and Apple to be able to offer their owners access to the ebooks of the biggest selling author of the decade, they will have to create an exception to this rule, and forgo the 30 percent commission that they usually charge authors or publishers. This is a big precedent and perhaps indicates the start of a sea change. Will there be a sliding commission scale for authors depending on their stature? Will they finally scrap their proprietary DRM?

The answer, at least to Solon's question in 2013, was no. Despite upbeat reports from Pottermore that going without hard DRM was not, apparently, unleashing widespread piracy, there has been no grand rush to unlock e-reading on a broader scale. This is one reason that the development in Germany is so interesting, of course.

The moves we now see in the German market suggest a new understanding between that country's publishing leaders, booksellers, and reader-consumers. And they might be revealing a potential axis of cooperation, running along those lines.

The moment is a good one to consider, and may yet have implications for our other markets.

Main image - iStockphoto: Rorem