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DRM, DRM, DRM. It’s the acronym of the day in the publishing world, after Tom Doherty Associates, the parent company of the Tor and Forge imprints, would drop DRM from all of their eBooks by July. I’ve talked about DRM before in this blog, just last week in fact, but in all of the excitement there aren’t a lot of discussions about what DRM actually is.
DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and refers to a broad band of access control technologies put in place, ostensibly to protect digital media from pirating. DRM is, in part, why you can’t burn a DVD to your iTunes library the way you can a CD. DRM is why iTunes music downloads were previously a proprietary format and account locked. DRM is why every Kindle device/app you get requires account validation through Amazon. DRM is why some of your video games require online authentication to make sure you haven’t installed them too many times. Yeah, it’s that stuff. Consumers tend to dislike it, but it has persisted for the last several years. Why? Because it provides a perception of safety against attempts to illegally copy and distribute this media.
This isn’t actually what DRM does. Anyone who has used a piece of software to create a digital copy of the contents of a DVD for personal use knows that DRM is exploitable. It’s non-trivial, but there are workarounds for every form of DRM. What this means in the end is that people who are looking to circumvent DRM are readily able to do so, it tends to only hamper those individuals who are looking to consume media they’ve purchased in the way most comfortable for them. DRM thus serves as a hurdle under the DMCA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which states that it is illegal to circumvent DRM for the purpose of violating copyright. It gives the law a hard and fast definition as to when something actually becomes a violation.
One offshoot is that you never really own an eBook, you merely license it. You can’t sell it. You can’t give it away. And if you decide to switch from Kindle to Nook, you have to buy it again.
That’s a one-sided view of DRM, and I’ll admit to that. It’s a hard subject to stay nonpartisan about. I also mentioned Amazon and Kindle. They’re not the culprits. DRM is contractually imposed by the publishers, Amazon (or B&N or Sony or any other ebook retailer) is only the middleman in this equation.
So. Tom Doherty Associates is dropping DRM. Why is this news? In part, it’s news because of the timing, right in the heart of the DOJ action against Apple and a portion of the Big Six. In part, it’s because of who is doing it. In part, it’s because of who is affected.
On the timing element, it comes on the heels of Charlie Stross’s blog post last week suggesting that abandoning DRM might be the next logical move for the publishers if the DOJ disassembles the agency model. Stross’s timing was excellent, as he explains in a new post yesterday:
I was only just ahead of the curve: people at executive level inside Macmillan were already asking whether dropping DRM would be a good move. Last week they asked me to explain, in detail, just why I thought abandoning DRM on ebooks was a sensible strategy for a publisher.
It should be made clear, as Stross does, that he is “not responsible for Macmillan’s change of policy,” however he’s become the de facto cheerleader for the death of DRM among the Big Six publishers thanks to his post last week and his meeting with Macmillan this week.
On the who’s doing it side, you’ll note in Stross’s quotes he doesn’t say “Tor,” he doesn’t say “Tom Doherty,” he says “Macmillan.” That’s because Tor, on the other hand, was sold to St. Martin’s Press in 1986. St. Martin’s became part of the Holtzbrinck Group, and the Holtzbrinck Group is better known as Macmillan. One of the Big Six. The same Macmillan who is willing to fight the DOJ rather than settle. They’re becoming the rebel publisher, and that’s kinda awesome.
So while it’s true that Baen has long been DRM-free, this is the first experiment by a Big Six imprint to step away from DRM and see what happens. This doesn’t mean that they’re giving in to the pirates. John Scalzi, a Tor author among his other credits, contacted the company and says on his blog that there is no intention on behalf of Tor or Macmillan to step down enforcement of copyright.
Oh, and Scalzi? He’s against DRM, too. In fact, he sums it all up perfectly. Because he’s Scalzi:
Does this mean it’s easier for someone to violate my copyright? It does. But most people don’t want to violate my copyright. Most people just want to own their damn books. Now they will. I support that.
Scalzi’s books that are going DRM free, and he’s damn proud of that fact, announcing his next book will be DRM free from the day of release. This gives the Tor move a clear champion within SFWA, one who will hopefully have some influence calming writers who may be concerned that dropping DRM is akin to surrendering to pirates.
That isn’t the extent of what I meant by who is affected. Tor publishes science fiction. Science fiction readers tend to be more technologically savvy. So by using Tor as the publishing arm to experiment with dropping DRM, Macmillan has chosen not only the SFWA president but also a readership base that is more likely to appreciate the move. Alright, that’s horribly generalist of me, I’ve met savvy consumers of any genre, I’ve met technophobic SF nuts, but I do find it interesting that it is a speculative fiction imprint getting the green light to go DRM-free.
I’ve looked for some dissenting opinions about this move. I started with two blogs that I’m nearly guaranteed to disagree with, but both have come out as staunchly anti-DRM in the past. This is actually one of those moves that both sides of the publishers vs Amazon fight agree on, the only disagreement will likely come as to predicting the potential damage to Amazon. Even in comments threads, the only negatives I can find are variations of “Baen did this first” and general complaints about the price of eBooks, which happen any time eBooks are mentioned. I’m enthused by the widely positive response, and hope this starts a trend in publishing.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Baen as being fully independent of the Big Six.