The Tower of eBabel Part Two

One commenter on my last post raised an interesting point that I’d like to draw out as a follow-up post.

A question – why are publishers ‘unlikely to stop using’ DRM, even if it doesn’t benefit them so much, as you indicate? I agree, getting rid of DRM is the way to go, but it won’t happen if publishers AND tech companies have some sort of stranglehold on the whole thing. What’s in it for the publishers?

I think DRM is a sop for publishers’ (and authors’) fears about selling their books digitally. Technology companies know better than anyone else that DRM is an ineffective strategy for stopping piracy. But they are motivated by reasons other than content protection – that is, if their particular brand of DRM is successful in dominating the industry and becoming a standard, they stand to benefit hugely. Music, movie and book content providers love DRM as well, because it is a straightforward, simple and relatively cheap way to oppose piracy. If an ebook ends up on a filesharing website, they can say “Well, we put DRM on it, so what else could we have done?” Meanwhile, DRM makes it difficult and confusing for consumers to buy digital products, locks consumers in to a single retailer and platform, and fails to stop piracy all at the same time.

I’m not saying publishers don’t have the interests of their authors at heart when they support DRM. They do. I believe many of them genuinely believe DRM is an effective deterrent to piracy as well. But I think they’re wrong – and here’s why.

Publishing is a black art. People feel their way by instinct, publishing books that they get the sense will work in the market. As publishers are fond of saying – publishing books is not like making sausages. Part of the reason the success or failure of a book is difficult to predict is that nobody really knows how people find out about books. For some reason, or for many reasons, some books just work. They are spoken about, shared around, bought second-hand and distributed in libraries far more than they are purchased outright. Bryce Courtenay admitted the other day that he gives away two thousand copies of each of his books to people who recognise him on the street. It has certainly been an effective method of getting people reading (and buying) his books – he’s frequently the top-selling local author in the charts.

The point is, we don’t really know what would happen if you took away people’s ability to share books. There is currently no metric for measuring this kind of legal book-sharing. No one keeps track of the sale of second-hand books in a way that publishers use. Nobody knows how many hands an average book passes through in its lifespan without money ever changing hands. But the more successful a book is, the more it is shared and passed around. This is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but the point is – publishers don’t know.

There’s an incredible amount of obstinacy about digital rights management in the industry. I had one digital person in publishing the other day equate my stance on DRM with support for piracy. Partly this comes from the way that digital piracy is measured. Generally every ebook downloaded illegally is counted as a lost sale. But this is clearly not the case – it’s impossible to determine how many of the people illegally downloading a book would have bought it if it wasn’t available for free. Another digital publishing guru a few weeks ago claimed that DRM might not stop the sort of piracy that happens on filesharing websites, but it stops individual people emailing their legitimately purchased ebook to a group of friends. At best, I don’t really see this as a realistic proposition – are people who aren’t savvy enough to use filesharing websites going to be savvy enough to email book files around? All the Luddite ebook readers I know have had to be shown how to load books onto their ereaders five or six times before getting the hang of it, and still forget on occasion. I also don’t think people actually want to pirate books. If a book is available legitimately for a reasonable price and it’s easy to purchase – most people who have the money and the inclination will buy it. Those who don’t wouldn’t have bought the book anyway. In the worst case scenario – where a homespun email filesharing cabal springs into being – is this really the kind of sharing publishers want to stamp out?

I don’t believe there is any way to stop digital piracy. There will always be those willing to crack DRM and distribute intellectual property illegally. The only way to combat it effectively is to make digital product cheap and easier to acquire than pirated content. As the Tower of eBabel gets bigger and more companies start selling ebooks with different kinds of DRM and in different formats, the job for the average consumer gets more and more difficult. It won’t be long before it’s easier to download a pirated book than to buy a legitimate one (if this hasn’t happened already). DRM is just ass-covering, pure and simple – it’s lazy technology, and it has the potential to lock a generation of readers into buying all of their books from one company – who will skim a profit off the top for doing very little.

Publishers are the only ones in a position to change this situation. They can harp on all they want about a standard ebook format – but the format won’t matter a bit if every retailer is using a different type of DRM. As it has been said by people far smarter than me: obscurity is a far greater threat to books than piracy.

The Tower of eBabel

The problem with new technology is that it costs a lot of money. Technology companies frequently spend years and years without making a profit, shaping their business model, trying to ‘monetise’ their creation. Amazon, for example, was launched in 1997, but didn’t become profitable until 2002. Facebook only became profitable last year, and Twitter still doesn’t make money, despite all the people that use it. Nonetheless, when these technologies take off they often make a lot of money.

Most big technology companies have become massive by creating platforms that have ended up being the de facto standard. A platform, in the technology sense of the word (rather than a raised piece of floor), is the system used to manage certain kinds of content. Facebook, for example, is a social media platform. The iTunes Music Store is a platform for music. Amazon’s Kindle is a platform for digital books. The most useful outcome for consumers is that a single platform ends up delivering a single type of content. In the days of physical media platforms – CDs, DVDs, audio cassettes – there was a certain amount of disconnect between the company that owned the rights to the platform and the people who sold the content.

Digital media has changed this. Nowadays, the iPod and the iTunes Music Store are synonymous with buying music digitally. Amazon would like to make the Kindle synonymous with ebooks. Apple would probably like to do the same with their iBooks software on the iPad (and as of this week, the iPhone and iPod Touch too). People in the industry call this eBabel – as each new company enters the fray, they bring with them a different format with a unique type of DRM. This situation is absolutely horrible for consumers. People are locked into a single platform with their purchases because digital media cannot be transferred between competing platforms. I’m not going to try and stretch this into an awkward physical media metaphor – there is no equivalent. It’s just bad – frustrating, confusing and annoying for readers.

It’s easy to argue that a single format will win out in the end – it’s what has tended to happen with physical media (we have Bluray instead of HD-DVD, and had VHS instead of Betamax), but with digital media the result of a single format ‘winning out’ is dramatically different. The only settled digital format so far (digital video is still up in the air, as is the format for ebooks) is Apple’s iTunes platform. This model has succeeded by Apple being in complete control of the platform and the content delivery. In order to use the iTunes Music Store and the iTunes platform, you need to use an iPod. In order to use an iPod, you need to use the iTunes Music Store.

In the future, it’s easy to foresee a company like Apple or Amazon being the only place you can buy ebooks from. They control the hardware and the software – the platform and the content. Is this what we want for ebooks? I think the answer is an emphatic no (though by all means, please disagree in the comments!). Unfortunately there is no clear solution to this problem. Getting rid of DRM would be a nice start, but publishers are very unlikely to stop using it – even though it demonstrably benefits technology companies far more than it does content providers. I’d love to hear what you guys think – sound off in the comments if you have an idea or even just an opinon. How do you want to get your books in the future?