If there are two truths we hold to be self-evident, they are these: 1) DRM does nothing to stop piracy, and 2) DRM, as used by many publishers today, frustrates legitimate purchasers of books. This leads many to conclude that DRM does not work, and that DRM is evil.
How do we get past “it’s good” or “it’s evil”?
Not true. And not true.
Consumers will happily accept the shackles of DRM if the trade-off is worth it to them. For example, while some Kindle users grumble about loss of rights, they express joy at the ease of purchase created by the Kindle system. On the flip side, some readers — I am one of them — hate Adobe Digital Editions. My first experience resulted in the server being unable to authenticate. Seriously, I bought books and couldn’t read them because the fracking server couldn’t authenticate.
Subsequent experiences have not made me happy. I avoid the ADE experience with everything I have. There’s something wrong with a system that continually makes a person forget why they opened an application in the first place. I don’t doubt that this experience can be improved, and I believe Adobe is sincere about making the whole process seamless. I just haven’t been thrilled by it yet.
Because consumers have grown wary of DRM — publishers, it’s not your fault alone; the music industry did you a bad this past decade — it’s hard to talk reasonably about DRM. I really liked it when Adam Hodgkin reframed the issue, noting it’s about Managing Digital Rights (“MDR”). Because that’s what we all need to be talking about.
Once we get past the “we have to have it to stop piracy”, a fallacy if ever one were uttered, and into the “how can we better manage the consumer experience” discussion, the better. I’m going to start right now. Join me. Please.
The most obvious, and most logical, reason for placing access restrictions on content is to limit the amount of time a person can utilize the content. Access to library books is controlled via software that automatically activates and expires a book, a video, a piece of music. This same technology can be extended to allow the reader to purchase or re-up the rental period on the media. The rules are clear to both the consumer and the library. That’s nice.
I won’t be surprised if we start seeing serious, robust ebook rental schemes. I’d already been thinking about them when I had two completely unrelated conversations about the idea. By serious, I mean a true Netflix-type model where ongoing revenue to the publisher and author is part of the program. Again, everyone knows the rules, and there is potential for purchases galore.
In the purchasing realm, I am convinced the smart way to manage digital rights is to allow people to buy books and let them choose the format. I am not opposed to rules where the book can only be downloaded a total of, oh, 10 times or activated on x-number of devices…as long as that access is clearly stated, upfront, to the consumer. Make it reasonable (we all know how technology evolves). Again, everyone knows the rules.
Discerning readers saw the thread throughout this post. Now let’s talk about how to move forward. As you might imagine, the first step is for publishers (and authors) to listen to what their customers (readers) are saying about DRM. Let me reiterate: people don’t mind restrictions as long as they know what they’re getting and what the limits are. I fully understand that the books I “purchase” for my Kindle are not owned by me — this is why I refuse to spend over $10 for an ebook. I lose rights.
(You knew pricing was a huge part of this topic; DRM and prices go together like “ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong“. In fact, the various rights lost by consumers are all factors in how they perceive the value of a book.)
As you can imagine, a lot of the burden for moving this conversation forward is, necessarily, on publishers. Readers have spoken quite clearly. They’ve engaged in discussions, put forth points of compromise, and — this is a tough one — are extremely well-informed about the issue. They may not know DRM by name, but they know what it is.
Now it’s time for the industry to have a similar discussion. A real discussion. A conversation that starts with ideas about communication and smart management of digital rights. This conversation should not take place in the industry bubble (it’s fun in there, sure, but the echo could drive you batty). Involve everyone, listen to everyone, but give a lot of weight to what the people who pay you money have to say.
Every barrier between a reader and her book is an opportunity for someone else to capture that reader’s attention. This is the challenge the industry faces. The books I bought the day ADE thwarted me were never read. Never talked about. And I’ve never purchased via that channel again. In this case, the publisher, who had me on the direct sales channel, has lost me to a larger retailer. This is less revenue for the publisher and more opportunity for me to be distracted by other bright and shiny things.
Managing digital rights is the best conversation the industry can have right now. Goodwill is flowing toward publishers, but the grumbling is growing louder. So how do we move this conversation forward?