Dumping ebook DRM: It's good for everyone (except Amazon)

DRM-free books, by the shelfload.

Three years after the music industry more or less did away with Digital Rights Management, we’re once again poised on the edge of the same battle. This time, though, it’s not digital music that’s at stake, but ebooks. Which, at least, has renewed my faith that people are still reading books.

The ball got rolling earlier this week, when Tor Books announced that it would make DRM-free versions of its ebooks available this July. Tor is a small publisher in the grand scheme of things; it’s an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates which is, in turn, part of the Macmillan Publishers group.

That name ought to ring a bell: Macmillan is the lone holdout in the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over ebook price-fixing, the only of the major publishers to not agree to settle with the government.

Whether there’s a strict causal relationship between these two events is hard to say, but it stretches the limits of credulity to think there’s no connection whatsoever. Macmillan is fighting to retain the agency model that Apple helped usher in, which proponents argue will keep Amazon from reasserting its staggering dominance in the ebook market. Regardless of whether Macmillan wins, loses, or settles that particular score, going DRM-free is a means to the same end: competition in the marketplace.

Ostensibly enacted as a means to combat piracy, DRM has been supremely ineffectual in that role. Most digital rights schemes are easily broken by anyone who has—or knows somebody who has—even a small degree of technical aptitude. It’s a bit like those Kryptonite bike locks that you could open with a pen.

Instead, DRM acts as a penalty to consumers. Worse, it penalizes the consumers who are actually paying for your product, for the infractions committed by those who didn’t. The people encumbered by DRM are exactly the ones who don’t need it. To argue that without DRM people will freely distribute those ebooks to all and sundry is to ignore any shred of morality we might have and insist that we are only kept in the bounds of the law by the restrictions placed upon us. Most people don’t steal things simply because they can—nor will those truly intent upon stealing be deterred by locks.

And yet, those locks not only prevent us from reading our ebooks on the devices we choose, but also curtail our rights for simple things like lending a book to a friend. It’s like buying a hardcover book that you can only read in your living room. Or your bedroom. Or your bathroom.

Platform lock-in is frustrating for users, but at the same time it’s not great for the publishers either. Publishers shouldn’t care about platform—it’s in their own best interests to have their content available to anybody who wants to buy it. Lock-in puts power even more firmly in the control of the middlemen running the stores.

I’m not sure that we’ve yet reached the tipping point in DRM-free ebooks, but it’s getting closer. Tor’s not alone in its move—Baen Books, a rival publisher of science-fiction and fantasy, has been selling DRM-free ebooks for years—along with producing the Baen Free Library, a collection of DRM-free ebooks that can be downloaded for free. Angry Robot Books, another small sci-fi/fantasy publisher, even offers a subscription to all of its titles for a year, DRM-free.

But what of the writers themselves, those hard-working wordsmiths who toil only to see their blood, sweat, and tears mercilessly pilfered up and down the Internet?

Sure, they want to get paid fairly for their efforts, but this hasn’t stopped many prominent authors from making strong arguments against DRM: John Scalzi’s next book from Tor will be DRM-free upon release, before the rest of the publisher’s catalog. Charlie Stross provided input to Macmillan as it considered its choice to go DRM-free. Cory Doctorow has distributed free, DRM-less ebooks of several of his works. And when J.K. Rowling finally launched ebooks for the immensely popular Harry Potter books, she elected to do so via her own storefront, without DRM.

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that many of these authors and publishers are focused on what’s sometimes broadly grouped as “speculative fiction.” It’s fitting, to me, that they should be the ones blazing the trail here. After all, these are the people who should be on the leading edge of technology—they’re the ones whose jobs depend on imagining how things could be different, the ones looking towards the future,.

As always, we’re just waiting for the present to catch up.

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