DRM for Books: Will Publishers Learn Anything from the Music Industry’s Mistakes?

Every once in a while you hear publishers mutter something about not wanting to make the same mistakes the music industry made. While it’s an admirable goal, the problem is that it’s not clear that we all have the same view of what those mistakes actually were. As the music industry approaches the post-DRM era, it’s pretty clear that Digital Rights Management is one big mistake that book publishers would do themselves a favor by avoiding.

The very nature of DRM runs contrary to the freedoms that all book readers know and love. The freedom to read a book anywhere, the freedom to read a book without special requirements or equipment, the freedom to loan a book to a friend, or borrow a book from a friend or library. By inserting a layer of DRM between readers and books the experience of reading is fundamentally transformed in all of the wrong ways. Not only that, DRM protected books lose all of their essential viral qualities. Unrestricted books sell themselves — DRM protected books never get the chance to.

Given the potential for disaster, it’s only appropriate that the O’Reilly TOC conference devoted a full session to Digital Rights Management. The session was was quite illuminating, if for no other reason because the conference organizers were unable to find a major trade publisher willing to speak to the advantages of using DRM. Several publishing representatives reportedly begged off for any number of reasons, ranging from “sadomasochistic trials and tribulations” to “evolving business strategies”.

What we were left with was a level-headed presentation by a couple of publishers who are actually using DRM-free content as a way to expand their businesses and serve their customers.

Ale de Vries of ScienceDirect spoke about his company’s service which gives subscribers unlimited access to over 2,000 peer-reviewed scientific journals in an unrestricted PDF format. The value for subscribers is in maintaining their subscription, which provides them with ongoing access to high quality content as it becomes available. de Vries spoke about the cost of DRM and the fact that it tends to create customer support issues. It seems his company prefers to use its customer support staff to address real support issues — as opposed to the manufactured support issues that arise when DRM is used.

Michael Jensen of National Academies Press (NAP), a publisher of academic books and reports, described how his company has increased sales by making the full content of all of its books available for free online. While readers can easily skim a book online, quite a few actually purchase the full book from the NAP website. Jensen notes that reading online is still not an optimal experience, as a result many readers are happy to pay for a printed edition.

NAP’s decision to make all of its content available in a standard web format means that the company’s books are indexed and findable through all of the major search engines. As a result, the company has successfully boosted its web traffic, and its sales.

Jensen explained:

“Visibility is the killer. The worst thing for a publisher is to have your material be invisible. We’re dealing with a culture of abundance where there’s so much more material out there than anyone can ever find. It’s our job as a publisher to get our words and content into the minds of as many people as possible. The best strategy for that is to make it as open as we can afford to make it open.”

Jensen also stressed that NAP’s decision to make its content freely available was a legitimate business decision and not a form of zealotry.

“Openness matters as a business strategy, DRM gets in the way of that, creates customer service problems, and impediments to the realities of the new gigantic audiences that we’re trying to tap.”

Jensen is realistic about the fact that NAP’s open strategy may not be the best approach for every publisher, and he encourages publishers to examine their business model and find the right balance between openness and sustainability. In general, though, he advises other publishers to err on the side of openness.

While piracy is a very real problem, the truth of the matter is that DRM creates more problems than it solves. Publishers may argue that they want the right to control who copies their books — and while that is their right, in this case having the moral high ground isn’t necessarily the best business decision.

13 Responses to “DRM for Books: Will Publishers Learn Anything from the Music Industry’s Mistakes?”

  1. Sean M. says:

    This whole DRM thing really makes me feel behind the times, but not understanding technology I’m alright with, it’s the fact that I don’t seem to be getting the moral argument that’s really killing me. I’m all about the free flow of information, and for the scientific journals non-DRM makes complete sense. But if you’re talking about a piece of commercial art, that is something where the income that makes its creation possible comes from the item’s sale. If I put the complete text to Di Vinci Code online, why would anyone who found it go out and buy it. Some may get a few pages in on their computer and want to read it on paper, but they’ll just print it out, not go to B&N and buy a copy. In a past life I worked as a professional writer and its not easy but if you cut even a small chunk out of the income, you’re making life so much harder for the people who put their hearts and souls into these pieces of art. Not compensating them I think is where the real moral question lies.
    In terms of the viral nature, that same benefit can be had by sizable excerpt, the first chapter or so, kind like a movie trailer, but you’re giving away the whole product just to make someone interested. These are the federalist papers we’re talking about. Dissemination is not the only goal.

  2. Kirk says:

    Sean, this article is not meant to imply that authors or publishers should give books away for free — although some do, and have done very well as a result (see Cory Doctorow for example). That approach clearly is not for everyone.

    DRM is another issue entirely. As I’ve noted in numerous articles on this site, DRM creates more problems than it solves. It limits the consumers ability to use the media they’ve purchased as they see fit, it limits traditional fair use rights, and the truth of the matter is that DRM doesn’t do much to stop piracy either.

    As the panelists at this TOC session have noted, DRM actually creates new support issues that can require substantial resources that might be better spent on elsewhere — like, perhaps, promoting new books.

    I seriously doubt your assertion that most readers would be printing out the Di Vinci Code if they were given the opportunity. Print On Demand may be the future, but not that sort of POD.

    The bigger issue here is that as publishers move toward electronic editions they’ll be facing the same problems the music industry has been facing for nearly a decade now. The music industry is just now coming to terms with the fact that DRM was made to be broken. Instead of protecting music/books from pirates, it punishes legitimate consumers who’ve purchased the book or CD legally and are attempting not to break the law. Pirates will always find a way to steal, no matter how locked down content producers believe their products to be.

  3. “While piracy is a very real problem, the truth of the matter is that DRM creates more problems than it solves. ”

    I could not agree with you more. If you can hear it, if you can see it, you can copy it. I think DRM is blown out of proportion by its proponents. Maybe they need to shift their attention to fighting software piracy and staying off media copyright violation for some time.

  4. Artículo muy interesante. Date una vuelta por mi blog si quieres. Saludos!

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