Point-Counterpoint: Digital Book DRM, the Least Worst Solution

Last week my friend and International Digital Publishing Forum board colleague Peter Brantley, Executive Director for the Digital Library Federation, published a thoughtful article on TOC arguing that “digital book DRM is bad bad bad.”

I rashly volunteered to offer a counterpoint. Now, let me say up front that I don’t think ebook DRM is “good good good” any more than I think that of taxation, standing armies, or the proliferation of nuclear technology. But although one may dislike taxation, one may dislike even more the likely consequences of eliminating taxes (diminished schools, roads, law enforcement, …). Peter’s post focused on negative attributes of DRM in isolation. But to me, the important thing is to look at likely outcomes given various scenarios, and to consider what these outcomes would mean for the principal actors involved (authors, publishers, and readers). Not whether something is good or bad but whether it’s better or worse than the likely alternative.

To me, it’s pretty clear that the establishment by the industry of a broadly adopted cross-platform ebook DRM system should lead to a significantly better outcome for all concerned than if no such platform ends up getting established. “DRM” is a somewhat loaded term: to clarify, by “ebook DRM” I mean a relatively lightweight means of limiting and/or discouraging copying and use beyond publisher-permitted limits, intended more to “keep honest people honest” than to totally prevent copying. After all, a book can be scanned and digitized, or even re-keyed, with only a middling level of difficulty — so aiming for “ironclad” DRM is not warranted, even if it were feasible.

Adapting Peter’s numbered list approach — with the same caveat that these points are really more interconnected — here’s some likely outcomes five years out if an interoperable DRM standard (de facto or de jure) does not happen:

  1. While there might be somewhat more DRM-free content, ebook DRM will not go away — instead there will be multiple islands of non-interoperable DRMed ebooks. Users will have to install and use multiple applications, and end up with fragmented bookshelves tied to particular software or devices, in some cases being forced to re-buy content as they move from device to device.

    It seems obvious that this consequence would follow, and I doubt Peter would predict otherwise. While music appears to be moving away from DRM, the music business is in the unique situation of having proliferated a freely copyable digital format. Copy protection remains prevalent among the other major segments of paid content: video, games, PC software, mobile content and applications.

  2. There will be an increased use of online-only reading systems, despite reader preferences to the contrary. For end users, this will reduce usability, control, privacy, and access. “Cloud” applications are not always optimal, as evidenced by Google’s moves into desktop apps and the much higher adoption of client-based iPhone apps over the previous Web-only model. And if ad-supported online reading becomes the only sustainable business model for publishers, region-restricted content will likely increase — if you aren’t in a high-consumption country where ad models pay, you may not have access, at any price.

    Again, the tradeoff between availability of copy-protected downloadable content and controlled-access online reading systems seems relatively obvious. It is interesting that despite Tim’s having established a preference among his readership for downloadable content, four out of the current top 10 O’Reilly best-sellers are available digitally only for online reading via Safari. I have to believe this is at least in part due to concern about piracy of the DRM-free digital editions that O’Reilly is presently distributing.

  3. There will be less digital content available to readers. Due to the lack of a DRM standard, costs in getting digital content distributed will be higher, and authors and publishers will be slower to make premium content available digitally. This implies that certain parts of the world, where paper books are not readily available, will remain information-poor. It also implies continued prevalence of paper, which despite all its positive attributes, is energy- and resource-intensive to make and ship, and highly polluting.

  4. Publishers and authors will experience reduced sales of both digital and print books. Due to a higher level of piracy and consumer adoption of alternative forms of learning and entertainment, the quality and quantity of long-form premium content that gets published will be diminished, and author and publisher revenue will shrink. The book will increasingly be seen as a legacy format.

    The impact of freely-copyable music CDs on recorded music sales supports this likely outcome, as does the trend of free-access Web news leading to reduced coverage by professional journalists employed by newspapers and magazines.

OK, this is overall not a pretty picture. Now, how about the outcomes five years out if as an industry we standardize on a cross-platform ebook DRM solution that gets adopted across devices:

  1. Consumers will be able to read on whatever device they choose, with a single collection of their content that they can search, organize, and annotate. They will even have an increased ability to break their DRM shackles when necessary. With a single DRM scheme, there will be no “security from obscurity,” and as with DVD’s CSS DRM, when push comes to shove, consumers will be able to do what they need to do with the content they acquire.

  2. Online reading systems will be in use, and likely prevalent for short-form digital reading, but consumers will also enjoy the improved usability, control, and privacy of downloadable content for use with client/device-based reading systems.

  3. Everything published commercially will be available digitally, worldwide. There will be DRM-free content available, and it may become the preferred delivery format in certain segments where there is a high degree of trust with readers (K-12 textbooks) and/or where there is an ingrained customer resistance to copy-limiting technology (computer books, perhaps). Publishers will have more options for business models, with lower costs, ultimately resulting in reduced prices to consumers. Paper consumption will decrease more rapidly, leading to lower energy consumption and reduced pollution and carbon emissions.

  4. Publishers and authors will experience higher sales, both digital and print, thanks to reduced piracy and broad availability of digital books. The book will be revitalized as it morphs into a digital-centric format, inclusive of rich media and interactivity as well as text, and will attract a new generation of readers across the globe.

Admittedly I perhaps paint an exaggerated picture of the two alternatives, and the actual future is likely in any case to surprise us. But it seems pretty obvious that the first scenario would be significantly worse for authors, publishers, and readers. The primary counter-argument I have heard to this point of view starts with the admission that “well, maybe it will be worse in the short term” but continues hopefully that “in the long run it will lead to all content being free.” I classify this argument with “in the long run, the communist state will wither away.”

A valid concern is whether an industry-wide interoperable DRM system can realistically be achieved within the next several years. Peter’s article implicitly questions this. I say: why not? After all, the movie industry achieved this outcome once (with DVD’s CSS DRM), and is on its way to achieving it a second time (with Blu-ray). The mobile content industry has achieved a wide measure of interoperability of copy-protected ringtones and screen-savers with OMA DRM, which is even supported by Google’s open-source Android platform.

There are many possible roads to Rome. One is “social DRM“: not explicitly limiting copying, but “watermarking” user information into content, visibly (“Ex Libris …”) and/or invisibly. Another is that the industry, perhaps through a body like the IDPF, would adopt a de jure ebook DRM open standard. Lastly, a particular vendor’s solution might become a de facto cross-platform standard, with support across a critical mass of desktops and devices.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Adobe has set a course to establish such a de facto industry standard for ebook DRM. But at Adobe we are also engaged in dialog with authors and publishers about social DRM, and within the IDPF around the potential for a vendor-independent standard. Personally, my goal is to see everything available digitally, for all people worldwide, as soon as possible, with a net positive effect on author and publisher revenue. As a libertarian geek, I in many respects share Peter’s gut feeling that DRM is “bad, bad, bad …”. And at the end of the day, Adobe is more advantaged if the digital market grows most rapidly, and is focused on promoting open standards like ISO 32000 (aka PDF) and EPUB, around which we build a variety of tools and services. DRM is not our central value proposition, by any means. But if a sensible ebook DRM solution, from Adobe or otherwise, can help advance our goals, i.e. lead to better outcomes for readers, publishers, and authors, then I’m all for it. Yeah, and I guess I’m for taxes, too.

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