News, Debate, and the Three Letter Word-DRM!

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Hello and welcome to another State of the eBook! The end of the year hasn’t slowed the eBook world down; we have news, more news, and a bit of debate! Let’s get started! eBook News Google confirmed they will be selling eBooks (as opposed to scanning public domain ones). No details on any software or hardware partners yet, though more information should be coming after the new year. Coincidentally, and perhaps to the detriment of Google Editions in France, a Paris judge found Google guilty of copyright infringement for their Google Books. eReader announced ANOTHER eBook reader deal, this time with the Jetbook Light. The only real claim to fame for the Jetbook is that it uses an LCD, rather than eInk; otherwise, it’s another lackluster generic eBook Reader. What exactly is eReader/Fictionwise/Barnes and Noble thinking? They’ve released the nook, they are working on a partnership with Plastic Logic, and on top of that, they’re adding these one-off deals with random eBook reader manufacturers. What is really odd is that until eReader announced the eSlick and Jetbook deals, neither reader supported encrypted PDB, which means someone is actively working to make these offers occur. To quote Judie, Doug and me, “WTF?” (We all emailed each other around the same time — we are becoming a hive mind!) Judie and I were talking about this, and our speculation is that the “marriage” of Barnes and Noble and Fictionwise isn’t going so well. Barnes and Noble bought Fictionwise, built their own branded software around Fictionwise’s work, then proceeded to drop eReader/Fictionwise’s primary format. These deals for eReader/Fictionwise are keeping it (somewhat) alive, at a time when it looks like they are going to be swallowed entirely by the Barnes and Noble machine. Again, this total speculation, based totally on an outsider perspective. Agree? Disagree? Let us know! Earlier in the week, Fictionwise promoted their Kindle-compatible books and delivery system. Meanwhile, Borders announced they’ve struck a deal to co-brand an eBook store with Kobo Books (formerly Shortcovers). And today the Sony Reader Daily Edition officially went on sale, though stock is very thin.

Gear Diary Nook pirate

To DRM or not to DRM, that is the question.
It all started when Doug sent me this email: I’ve pointed you to a couple of articles about this issue, and I’m particularly moved by Dave Cullen’s points about eBook sales, author rights, royalties, and the like. My personal view is very conflicted—I certainly don’t have the “information must be free!” POV that so many computer nerds do. On the other hand, I think our current copyright laws are absurd and the publishers’ business model is dead (whether they’ve realized it or not). But finally, as a guy who literally makes his bread and milk money by writing, I do believe in some kind of copyright protection for authors. I have listened to the anti-DRM crowd and frankly, I don’t find a lot of their arguments convincing. I feel caught in between publishers who clearly believe that they deserve the lion’s share of the profits, and don’t care how much that screws the authors (or consumers), and the consumers who want everything as cheap as possible and they also don’t seem to care how much that screws the authors. I don’t have any answers, nor even a point, but we keep posting links to these kinds of articles and it makes me think. And frustrated. So Doug and I decided to have a little mock debate. He kicked things off.

Doug I don’t really have a preference as to a side, but I definitely feel strongly that creators/authors/content producers are getting squeezed, so maybe I should start out by being contrary and support some form of DRM. Like this: I’ve been a nerd for a long time, and the default nerd position on this topic is that “information wants to be free.” By this, most folks seem to me, “I don’t want to pay diddly for anything,” a point I can kinda understand, but which certainly makes it hard to be a creator of content. So as one of those aforementioned creators, when I hear people arguing against DRM or any kind of restrictions on online/electronic content, I say, and with all due respect, “hooey.”

Carly As a counterpoint, I would argue that books have always been sacred. People revere books, they haunt bookstores and garage sales for books, and they hoard their favorites until they can’t navigate around the stacks. Ebooks are just another way to consume content, and to lock consumers into DRM’d formats that may not have staying power treats consumers like criminals, which stifles long-term growth and innovation.

Doug Ha! Like the collectors in that book (and movie) “The Ninth Gate.” You have a point for sure. One of the beauties of books is that they have been “standardized” over the course of several centuries. Not only that, but we’re used to hardcopy books in hardcover, paperback, and even trade paperback. So it’s standard. This is no DRM standard, so that makes it difficult—you end up buying an eBook from a particular bookseller, and you can’t read it on a different bookseller’s device or software. Heck, you can’t even read Fictionwise books on the B&N eReader software on an iPhone, and the software and format is almost identical. But. But if the copy isn’t locked in some way, what’s to prevent it from being copied over from one person to another, emailed around the world, and what not? And what happens to the authors of the content—they make no money whatsoever. That would treat authors as if they’re worthless. So we’re caught on the horns of a dilemma; how can we have authors who get the money they deserve for their efforts, but not treat consumers like criminals?

Carly How is that so different from paper books? Simply because the medium is even more transportable? If the concern is that authors don’t get resale value, why not shut down sites like, since they’re stealing from authors by not buying new. The lack of one clear standard for eBooks, let alone one clear standard for DRM eBooks, makes it very difficult for consumers. Stripping away DRM makes it a wee bit more palatable to have different formats, since there’s less likelihood the company you tied your content to could up and go, leaving you with no way to authorize your content (like PlaysForSure). The truth is the best way to avoid piracy is to be the best you can be at content providing and management. iTunes is now DRM free, and it’s in large part because Apple has made it EASIER to find music and manage content through iTunes than by haunting BitTorrent.

Doug It’s different in that it’s a one-to-many model while reselling paper books is one-to-one. I can loan or give away or resell my paperback, but one hardcopy book can only be read by one person at a time. One electronic copy of a book, pirated, can be uploaded unlimited numbers of times at effectively no cost to the uploader. A lot of people are arguing that the eBook business is equivalent to what the music business went through. But the thing is, there’s no version of CDs for book readers out there now. In other words, when I buy a CD, I want to be able to rip it into a new format if it’s only for my personal use. When I buy a new book . . . I have a book, and that’s it. It’s not like I can rip it and load it onto my iPhone or anything. What this means moving forward, I have no idea. I don’t want to put barriers in the way of readers, either. I just don’t want authors to be screwed. And right now, it seems like different folks—Amazon, B&N, etc.—are moving forward with no thought whatsoever to the future. I, personally, don’t find it particularly egregious to have to enter a code to unlock all my books on my reading platform. At worst, it’s mildly annoying when I have to do a new installation. (What bothers me a lot more is the fact that Amazon or whoever can simply delete my books whenever they want.) Do you feel that entering a code once on your platform to unlock your content is a really high hurdle? Because I don’t. I mean, after all, you give the bookstore your credit card number when you buy a book (unless you pay cash). You give the library your library card. It doesn’t strike me as a big deal. We chatted about this topic before: I think it boils down to, what are they selling? If they’re selling content, then they should standardize the format so it can be shared, price the eReaders like a commodity, and go ahead and compete. If they’re selling hardware, then they’ll want to keep other people locked out with propriety formats and tight DRM lockage. But I say again: I don’t particularly like DRM. I just don’t see another way to get authors their money. What I think should be getting talked about by the hidebound publishers is alternatives. Why not give away an electronic copy of a book for each hardcover sold? Why not give people “points” for each eBook they buy, like frequent flyer miles, and then when they have enough, they get a free book? Why not let people download the eBook version of a new release a day early, but charge them $12 instead of $10? Why not have two tiers of books—with ads (for $5) and without ads (for $10). Sure, some of these ideas are nuts, but this is the kind of thing publishers and sellers need to be working on, not how tightly they can bind up things with DRM. I think. I don’t expect to hear anything like that from them any time soon, though.

Carly What about something like “social DRM”. Basically, an unlock code that is tied to your book, your account, but it’s a one-time unlock. The eReader DRM system is an example of “social DRM”. It would accomplish a lot of what both of us are arguing for: the books aren’t easily piratable, but the consumer gets more flexibility than they get under a more widespread DRM system. Teleread talks a great deal about social DRM, like here and here. Kind of gives everyone a little of what they want.

Doug I think the B&N DRM works the same way. And yes, I think that would work well. Or at least, well enough so that authors have a decent chance of getting paid, and users don’t have to jump through too many hoops. My memory is that eReader used to not have that kind of DRM, and I had to unlock each book individually on my Palm device back in the day. Did they change?

Carly I think you’re right, but that was a long time ago. In my (limited) experiences with eReader as of late, unlocking one book unlocked them all. I also think eReader now lets you choose which unlock code unlocks your books (if you have multiple cc’s on file). So maybe Social DRM is the closest we can get to a conclusion?

Doug Well, yeah, but nothing on the DRM topic!

Your Take Do you think Social DRM is the answer? What do you think Barnes and Noble/eReader/Fictionwise are thinking? Share below!

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

3 Comments on "News, Debate, and the Three Letter Word-DRM!"

  1. After some bad experiences with the old Amazon eBook store, I only purchase “Social DRM” books. Any activation system / tracking system risks (1) leaving me out in the cold when my favorite online bookstore goes out of the business and (2) puts other ridiculous restrictions on me, such as how many devices I can read a book on.

    Social DRM is a polite way of reminding the customer about copyright, without imposing an undue burden.

    The bad things about Social DRM are the same as with any DRM:

    1) It restricts third parties from developing software / hardware, especially free software developers.

    2) It encourages multiple proprietary standards to avoid licensing fees, etc.

    3) It doesn't work. All DRM is just an obfuscation scheme, not an encryption scheme (in short… I have to be able to read it!).


  2. After nearly 30 years in the computer world, I've seen many copy protections schemes come and go. Everything from intentional disk errors to code wheels to DRM wrapper – none of them have ever prevented any piracy.

    Moreover, I think bigger impediments to ebook adoption are pricing and the first sale principle. With a physical book, I pay $7 or so for a paperback, and I can give it away or loan it out an unlimited number of times. With the most generous system currently on the market, an ebook costs $7 or so, and I can loan it out exactly one time for a finite time, and can't give it away or do anything else with it except keep it for as long as the DRM doesn't lose support. See MSN Music, Google Video paid content, etc.

  3. Just to throw some fuel on the anti-drm fire, here's a link from teleread that points out a key point: just because we CAN share books with friends doesn't mean they'll want to read them.


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