Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Should Publishers Abolish DRM and Trust Customers Instead?

My new column at Huffington Post suggests publishers should abolish DRM and trust their customers to do the right thing.

Most ebook customers don't know what DRM is. Many authors and small publishers don't understand it either. Yet if you're a reader, author or publisher, it's probably a good idea to roll up your sleeves and think about how DRM might impact you in the future.

All Smashwords books are published DRM-free. This means we don't apply copy-protection schemes that would prevent, for example, a customer from reading their ebook on any of the multiple ebook reading devices they may own today or in the future (e-readers, computer, cell phone, etc.).

Some of our retail partners apply DRM to our books in their own stores, and we're fine with this. It's up to the customer to decide if they care about DRM or not.

At Smashwords, we're strongly anti-piracy, though unlike publishers who infect their books with DRM, we instead work with our authors and publishers to help them educate customers to do the right thing. We think most customers are honest and honorable, and they understand the value of supporting the author or publisher who created the book for their enjoyment.

In the Smashwords Style Guide, we encourage our authors and publishers to add the following license statement to their books, which acts as a gentle reminder:

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

The license statement also acts as a trojan horse. Should the book fall into the hands of readers who didn't pay for it, the license statement provides the honest reader a chance to make good on their obligation to support the author or publisher.

Obscurity is a bigger risk to authors than piracy. And while I'd never say piracy is a good thing, I've seen some folks argue it can actually provide indirect benefits to the creator. The idea isn't as outlandish as you might think. Imagine if somehow my novel was pirated, and fell into the hands of one million readers. What if the gentle reminder above prompted one percent of them to purchase the book? That's 10,000 paid customers.

In the column at HuffPo, I have a real world example of how one forward-looking software company (and folks, ebooks are software!) leveraged piracy in their early years - even encouraged it - and now they sell billions of dollars in software per year. There are many lessons to be learned by authors and publishers willing to experiment.

The column at HuffPo is actually a re-write of a previous column that first appeared here on the Smashwords blog. In that column, I tried to rationalize what I viewed as dichotomous thinking on the part of mainstream publishers. They sell books in print, and those books are shared, resold, resold again, again and again, and at each step the publisher receives nothing. If that book was an ebook, the publisher would call it piracy.

The same previous column was also republished over at Teleread. One commenter there called it, "marvelously imperfect," which is the highest praise I've ever received on a blog post. To me, the best blog posts provoke thought and serve as conversation-starters, not the last word.

What do you think is the last word (or the next word) on the DRM debate? Comment here, or click here to join the discussion at HuffPo.


  1. ebooks are software

    I've been thinking about that a bit lately. E-books are most definitely software (there is no hard copy unless one prints it), but it makes me wonder if, say, something like versioning applies. Is the first release of an e-book version 1? Then, after some edits (yes, it should be "done" when it is published, but you know there are always little or even big things that can be changed; a book like any piece of art is never really finished, in other words), do I then release version 2? Can I expect my readers to download that second version, similar to how they might download version 2 of a software application?

    This is one of those things that I think still has to be defined, most likely by convention that has not yet been formulated.

  2. i don't like the smashwords blurb.

    it conflates "piracy" with "sharing".

    of course, that's what corporate
    publishers have done all along.

    they know "piracy" is _not_ really
    a big problem to their business.

    not if "piracy" is properly defined
    as a counterfeiter reprinting their
    books for commercial purposes...

    (maybe in third-world countries, yes, but that's another matter...)

    the real reason they wanna use
    d.r.m. is to try and prevent the
    casual sharing of a book that we
    take for granted with a p-book.
    (for good reason, because it is
    concomitant with _owning_ it.)

    the idea that a writer should be
    paid for every _reader_ is nice,
    but it's never really been true,
    not since there's been libraries,
    and there's no reason to try to
    force that issue on people now.

    encourage the people who _like_
    a book to pay for it. that will be
    more than enough for the writer,
    if the writer is any good, that is.

    and we don't need to encourage
    the writers who aren't any good.


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  5. I am a content author and fully support getting rid of DRM.

    I think piracy is really about price point, and could be described as various points along the graph of 1/e.
    At $1, 90% of people who are interested might buy, 10% leave empty handed or steal.

    At $2, 80% might buy etcetc.
    I would much rather find the price point that works best, and give my customers the best possible experience than waste time and effort trying to force people to be good.

  6. I see the writing on the wall, so to speak: DRM-free will destroy the ability for writers to earn a living, just as free internet news has driven newspapers out of business. Who wants to buy a book when they can get it for free? This is not like sharing a paperback with a friend because the DRM-free book can be given away to 20 or 30 (or a thousand) "friends" at the same time. Also, words that can be individually copied make books no more valuable than free internet sites. This is why people do not pay for internet information... they can get it for free.

  7. I didn't even consider a Kindle because of Amazon's stealing of sold books back from people's Kindles, like thieves in the night. I have been putting off buying books for my Nook because I don't like the idea that when B&N is gone (how long has Border's got?) my books will be gone too, useless on any platform. It's not about stealing; it's about my security. For those reasons, when I discovered Smashwords' attitude about DRM, I became a loyal Smashwords customer. Anything I interested in, I first check whether it's available from Smashwords. If not, I'll buy a used hard copy, instead.

  8. Another factor in the DRM battle is the way screen-readers handle text. For people who have trouble reading the "approved format", it can mean that piracy is the only option.


    Which quotes heavily from this article: http://www.zdnet.com/going-blind-drm-will-dim-your-world-7000004586/

  9. I don't agree with this blog at all. The overall downside that this blog has against DRM is that you cannot use it on multiple devices but that can be easily managed if you take Google Books for example. Google Books offers their PDF books in both a webbrowser, tablets etc and all you have to do is log on and you get access to your google books. Which means you can read it on your tablets, computer (using the webbrowser) and other devices. The logon makes sure that only one has access to it. Sure this logon can be shared among others but it is at least some barrier.

    Using the blame-game concept to encourage people to buy it counts for nothing really. Free is always better in most scenarios and only a few would pay for it. Picture the same concept in a regular store. Some people would pay but most wouldn't. I have a full time job and I spent over 1½ year developing a technical eBook that cost around 12$. This is very cheap considering it is the only available content for a certain certification. I didn't do this to make money but just imagining that 1½ year of my own work could easily be downloaded in a PDF and distributed freely inside a company or piratebay is just horrible, especially since I'm only asking for 12$. And trust me, I have people ask me for the eBook for free. So if people get an option to get the book for free they will take it.

    Sharing a printed copy among friends and reselling it to other people is not the same as piracy. I'm completely fine with people buying my hard-copy and handing it out to their friends so they can read it. But piracy enables the buyer to freely distribute it while still keeping a copy for them self. So that comparison is just bull.

    DRM is used to help protect the writers copyright and make sure that they get some payment for their tedious work.