Revisiting DRM: What about Books?

Capt. Henry Morgan, courtesy of the Wikimedia CommonsMention the letters "DRM" and you're likely to immediately evoke two opposing and emotional reactions. The battle lines have become so fixed, in fact that you almost don't hear those letters debated at all any more. That's also because the war has already been fought, and largely lost, when it comes to music.

But what about books, now that they've become digitized? Should the arguments, the answers, and the result (entrenched, opposing camps) be the same?

We all know what happened to musicians once Napster came along – millions of people started downloading their music without paying a dime to the authors or publishers of that music. If you’re an author, and particularly an author of fiction (i.e., entertainment) as compared to non-fiction (i.e., ideas and information) what should your position be? And while we’re at it, what would your reaction be if you found out that your book(s) have already been pirated?

Chances are, while learning how self-publishing works you’ve heard something about DRM (digital rights management), and how it can be used to make it difficult, although not impossible, for people to make copies of your book. You may also have heard many people say that DRM is immoral, unethical, or at least miserly, because it discourages the free flow of ideas and inhibits the kind of creativity that can be seen when (for example) musicians sample the work of other musicians.

You may also have heard many people argue that you shouldn’t care if people copy and share your book, because it could prove to be great marketing. After all, the biggest challenge for a first-time, self-published author is to get anyone at all to read their book, and running free book giveaways is a popular tactic for accomplishing just that, so why sweat it? Anyone who reads a free copy of your book may recommend it to someone else that goes on to buy a copy, so what’s not to love about that?

That’s a position held by many, and not just individuals.  Here’s what Smashwords, a very popular self-publishing  service, has to say about DRM in its About Smashwords FAQ:

What is Smashwords’ position on digital rights management (DRM)?
We think DRM is counterproductive because it treats lawful customers like criminals. Consumers value non-DRMed content and there’s a growing body of evidence that digital content producers who have abandoned DRM are enjoying greater sales. Many buyers of ebooks resent DRM because it limits their ability to fully own and enjoy their digital book. At Smashwords, we only publish DRM-free works. By the same token, we strictly discourage illegal pirating of an author’s works.

Part of that rationale is a bit out of date, however: anyone buying a book from Amazon, for example, can read that book anywhere, anytime, and on any device.

And then there’s the fact that sending unprotected copies of your book may make promotion easier, since you may not have protected copies available for pre-launch reviewers, and after you launch, reviewers you contact may say that they prefer a PDF file rather than a protected copy (in case you’re not aware, it’s easy to make copies – even editable copies – of PDFs unless you buy and properly use a commercial copy of Adobe Acrobat to save your file).

Then there’s the fact that we haven’t heard much yet about people pirating books, so why worry about it at all?

Finally, there are many who say that there’s nothing you can do about piracy anyway, so don’t kid yourself or waste your time and money investing in DRM.

Those are all good and valid points, but they do leave out two factors, one of which is economic, and the other psychological.

The economic one is easy to outline. While it’s true to say that it does not appear that piracy is seriously cutting into book sales to date, it’s also accurate to say that no one really knows how many books are being downloaded for free. And to be fair it should be noted that when DRM advocates have offered estimates of book piracy (sometimes based on studies), they’ve counted every download as a lost sale. That’s bound to be result in an over-estimate, because many people who download pirated books likely pull down more titles than they would ever buy. They’re also likely to get around to reading fewer books they download for free – just as occurs when they download books authors knowingly offer without charge.

But still, as more and more people read eBooks instead of print books, there’s the potential for the same thing to happen with eBooks as has happened with music – revenues from book sales could drop dramatically. This might be particularly true with genre fiction – the area where self-published authors have been most successful to date.

Many would still say “so what?” to that argument, observing that many musicians have benefited from the added exposure when their music has been “shared.” But people aren’t likely to start paying to go to book readings. Authors basically have nothing to sell but their writing, and if people can gain access to 100% of an author’s work for free, there’s no other way for an author to make that up.

That said, let’s set the economic Armageddon scenario aside, since we’re not there yet, and may never get there. That leaves the psychological question, which is the same as the title of this blog entry: how would you feel if your book was pirated?

The answer is that many authors needn’t regard that as a hypothetical question. If you’re feeling brave today, just type the following search request into their favorite browser and find out:

“your book title” “your name” free download

I did that the other day for no particular reason other than idle curiosity, and found multiple sites offering my book as a free download, along with millions of other titles. In most cases, visitors could even choose from multiple formats – txt, PDF, Mobi and so on. Several of the sites showed access data, usually indicating that my book was being downloaded hundreds of times a week – more than it sells through legitimate channels in a year.

What was in it for the site owner? For one, users had to pay $2.00 a year for unlimited downloads. In other words, the site owner was willing to screw hundreds of thousands of authors for less than the price of a single eBook per user. Another was worse – all you had to do was to give your email address in answer to a product-based question, so the site owner could sell it to the product’s manufacturer for a few pennies. And at some sites you didn’t have to even register, let alone pay anything. Just press the button and get your free copy. Of course, there’s an excellent chance that you might be getting a nasty computer virus as well, but after all, there’s no such thing as a totally free lunch.

You might find that your search, as mine did, also leads you to questions like this posed at chat sites: “I’ve heard that this is a really interesting book – does anyone know a site where I can download it for free?” My book, incidentally, is priced in eBook form at the admittedly cost-prohibitive price of $2.99 (and you can buy it at Amazon, as well as at all of the other usual sites).

So how would you feel? Or if you just tried a search for your own book and received similar results, how do you feel?

My guess is the same way I did – exploited. And that’s not a subjective feeling, but a factual statement.

I also felt resentment that I had to go on to spend a lot of time filling out “take down” notices and sending them to the sites that provided an address to send them; anger at those sites that provided no way for someone to send such a take down notice (this is a violation of international law); frustration with the knowledge that once a book has made it’s way onto one site, it’s likely to be a futile, whack-a-mole exercise for an author to ever depend her copyright in it again; and bittersweet satisfaction when I saw sales of my book immediately increase once those take down notices started to take effect.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe as a matter of principle that the author should uniquely own the decision whether to make the product of their labors available without charge, particularly after they’ve invested hundreds, if not thousands of hours in the project, as well as thousands of dollars in production costs as well.  In my case, there’s the added detail that you can find c. 20 million  informative words I’ve written available for free at this site, and I  posted the first draft of my book for free here as well.

If there’s a moral to this story, it may be that while DRM is not foolproof, it does make a book harder to copy. That means that if you haven’t written a best seller, using DRM may protect your book from ever getting hacked. So unless your answer to the question posed above is, “I wouldn’t care at all,” you might want to think twice before choosing a publisher like Smashwords to carry your book, as I imagine that eBook pirates scrape sites like this to grab every book that might be offered for free even for a day. I searched the number 1 and the number 25 Smashwords books, and pirated copies of each were available at multiple sites. I imagine the result would have been the same for just about any Smashwords title.

I’d also think twice before providing PDF copies of your books to anyone, or allowing a site (as I did) to give away PDF copies as a book of the month selection. I may have thought that my book was just one little fish in a very large school of literature, but sadly it isn’t very hard to write an algorithm that can scour the Internet daily for every unprotected file available.

So author, beware. And reader, before you visit one of those free download sites that exist only to monetize creativity, consider whether compensating authors isn’t a better way to support creativity than railing against DRM.

Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?