Publishers tussle over DRM at BEA

Publishers tussle over DRM at BEA

The pros and cons of DRM have been a hot topic at this year's BookExpo America, with at least three first-day panels (4th June) devoted to the issue.

The most passionate arguments against DRM came during a Publishers Launch panel focused on Macmillan’s Tor/Forge imprint, which is going DRM-free across its entire 2,200-plus titles beginning this summer. However, in an International Digital Publishing Forum roundtable, Bloomsbury executive director Richard Charkin called a DRM-free environment "a real concern".

Macmillan’s digital publishing EVP Fritz Foy explained that the Tor/Forge decision had been four years in the making. In February 2008 and for five months thereafter, in exchange for registering with at its launch, readers were able to obtain, as a special promotion, titles from 24 authors DRM-free. They did so to the tune of 1.2 million e-books. But once the promotion ended, readers were angry to discover that was not in fact a DRM-free e-bookstore. Given the SF/fantasy genre’s tech-savvy base, Macmillan realised, Foy said, that “Tor would have to be DRM-free soon.”

Three Macmillan authors—Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross and John Scalzi—were present to explain why they saw DRM as counterproductive. What it prevents is “competition, not copying” Doctorow asserted. Stross called it “software snake oil” and “morally wrong". He continued: “the consumer electronics industry depends on selling a shiny new device every twelve months so the electronics sector is trapped in a permanent deflationary
cycle. An e-book with DRM is unlikely to be readable in five years—ten at most. There’s a pervasive assumption that e-books are disposable literature, but many SF fans have turned their homes into libraries. They don’t want to discard an e-book, and DRM is poison to them.”

Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, said what’s important to authors in the anti-piracy fight is to support copyright by enforcement, “to shift responsibility from DRM and the tech department to the legal division” where it belongs. All three writers saw a DRM-free world opening up retail for the midlist and the local bookstore.

Meanwhile in the IDPF roundtable, Random House sales, operations and digital president Madeline McIntosh—who in a previous life as publisher of Random House Audio removed DRM from her products—called DRM “a red herring, there to enable a new way to sell books. When we took it off audio, it had no effect. I’m neither pro nor against taking it off. You need to know the goal.” She predicted that a year from now, the industry will see more experiments in removing it.

Open Road c.e.o. Jane Friedman said she was “leaning toward no DRM. We see more piracy on the print side than on the e side. We can always put DRM back if we remove it and decide we’ve made a mistake.”

Yet Charkin made the case that unless a publisher has global English language rights to a work, “it’s really valuable to have DRM. A DRM-free environment is a real concern if you are dealing with territorial rights.”

Penguin’s global digital director Molly Barton is trying to find a middle way. In another Publishers Launch session, she said that although one of the signal roles of a publisher is to protect an author’s copyright, Penguin “wants to allow greater flexibility and interoperability". Barton is looking at alternatives to DRM, such as Pottermore’s watermarking or a digital locker.