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DRM-Free Day, forever.

Authors and publishers need to get creative with piracy. DRM isn't the answer.

Before reading too far into this, you should know that supporting DRM-free content does not mean O’Reilly supports stealing, pirating, or other forms of theft. You should know that we take theft of copyrighted material seriously, but we also understand there are situations you cannot stop or may not want to stop. The gist of this post is about that last notion.

It seems like a lot of first time authors, experienced authors, editors, publishers, and publishing technologists lose sleep pondering DRM and piracy issues surrounding digital content and its availability and prevalence on the web. I’d like to say to them all, “chill out and sleep.” This is not a flash-in-the-pan situation and there are some very simple things you can do to prosper. This issue has been around for a long time and will be around for a long time to come.

A couple years ago, David Pogue was gracious enough to participate in an experiment on DRM-free content in the wild with O’Reilly. You can read his conclusions here, but his bottom-line was this:

“The results? It was true. The thing was pirated to the skies. It’s all over the Web now, ridiculously easy to download without paying. The crazy thing was, sales of the book did not fall. In fact, sales rose slightly during that year. That’s not a perfect, all-variables-equal experiment, of course; any number of factors could explain the results. But for sure, it wasn’t the disaster I’d feared.”

I think this is a pretty important revelation. Sales increased during the year Pogue’s work was intentionally let out DRM-free. I wonder what would have happened if we had a banner ad on Pirate Bay during the experiment that indicated you could get the print and digital versions of “XYZ title” at our retail price of the print product for anyone using the coupon “Pirate-bay.” My point here is we need to get creative with piracy and how to work with it instead of thinking DRM, lawyers, or search engine blocks will address the problem.

Most recently, Eric Freeman and Beth Robson, authors of “Head First Design Patterns,” “Head First HTML” and “Head First HTML5 Programming” re-kindled an old thread with O’Reilly about DRM and piracy. This is a thread that most authors feel strongly about. You can read an interesting take on this from four years ago here.

This time Beth opened the discussion with:

“I’m already seeing ‘HF HTML5 Programming’ popping up on illegal file sharing sites. This morning: http://bit.ly/IM7I84. Is O’Reilly on this? Do you know what they do about it, if anything? I realize we can’t stop it but just curious.”

And Eric chimed in with:

“When I checked a day or so after the digital copy went live they were the top searches in Google. While you may not be able to stop Pirate’s Bay, etc. You should be able to have Google remove the links.”

Based on my years of publishing with O’Reilly and others, I replied:

“I disagree with you on this. I think this helps market the book. ‘HF Design Patterns’ has been one of the books that shows up most on the P2P sites, yet sells consistently well. Have you not heard Tim’s rant that piracy is not the enemy of authors, obscurity is. The people who steal, will always steal for whatever their reasons are and will figure out how to get what they want.”

Let’s dig into my reply a little deeper to see why I could make such a statement. First of all, let’s look at some numbers. When I search for ‘book torrents” there are 77,800,000 results returned by Bing from the uTorrent client. And 12,000,000 hits returned from a Google search. When I searched for “technical book torrents” there were 20,300,000 results returned from Bing and 5,180,000 results returned from Google. Further refining this search, I looked for “O’Reilly Torrents” and got 937,000 results from Bing and 23,200,000 results from Google, which reverses Bing and Google from the preceding numbers. Diving in a bit on this and searching for “Head First Design Patterns” returns this:

Head First Design Patterns Bing search results

Head First Design Patterns Google search results

Notice that there are more than 69 million hits available when you search inside of uTorrent, which uses the Bing search engine. An interesting side note: I began clicking into the search pages and found as soon as I got to page 10 or so, the results change to “211-220 of 191,000 results,”‘ which is drastically different than 69 million. But the links were valid until about page 54, where I received the message “531-540 of 32,600 results” and many of the links were not for the Head First book torrent. So the long story short, there a boatload of torrents out there, but not as many as it first appears, yet I could find and download this title within seconds.

Getting out of the weeds and back to the point of this, there are plenty of available torrents for “Head First Design Patterns” and all of our Head First and O’Reilly books. But does the availability of torrents slow the sales of our books in both print and digital forms? Since 2004, O’Reilly has three Head First books in the top 15 all-time revenue generators (dollars at the cash registers), according to Nielsen Bookscan’s Technical Book reports. If we only count the books that have a sticker price under $100, Head First has three of the top 10 all time. And the last time I looked, our Head First titles dominated the top 10 titles at Safaribooksonline.com. “Design Patterns,” “Java” and “HTML” lead the way for O’Reilly in revenue generated in bookstores, revenue generated at Safari, and pirated copies on the web. Is this just a coincidence? Or is this the cost of doing business?

I believe that people who cannot afford to purchase a $50 book are likely not going to forgo other necessities so they can pay. I am pretty confident that if you did a demographic study of the people who grab torrents and unauthorized content off the Internet, the majority of them would not be economically able to pay the prices on the products. Another data point to think about is when you were in college, was the money you spent on books a good experience as you saw your beer, food, date, clothes, and incidental money fritter away on books? So here’s an interesting twist: Do these college kids go on to real jobs making real money, and do they remember the books that taught them what they needed to know? You bet. Are they more willing to purchase from that publisher in the future when they have real tangible money? You bet. Are they an early-stage marketing investment for publishers? You bet.

Here’s the rub: Some publishers may feel good that their books are not all over P2P networks, available in torrents, or DRM-free editions. But really, think about this. If nobody wants your content bad enough to get it and make it available, should you have published it? Obscurity is more of an enemy than piracy. Here is the double rub: If your content is free and on P2P networks, torrents, etc. and people are not downloading it, is it any good? Seriously. Most of these sites show the number of downloads on the page so others can see if lots of people like your content. I think it would be embarrassing if nobody wanted my works for free. As a publisher, it’d be something to make us re-evaluate our publishing plans, quickly. Again, I am looking at this as the cost of business, similar to a marketing taxation of sorts.

Adding DRM to content to deter theft… are you kidding me? Seriously, think about that. It will take a good programmer about an hour to get past most DRM, or a manual shop somewhere in the world will cut and scan the physical book and away it goes. DRM seems a bit like a Neanderthal dragging its knuckles rather than using its larger brain and brawn to move forward and past stuff that did not help the species evolve. As an industry we need to evolve past the archaic DRM that’s retarding growth and innovation in our industry. New DRM technologies are not innovation, they are a Neanderthal-like reaction. We need distribution innovation. We need learning science innovation. We need total immersion with content innovation. We need production and manufacturing innovation. At this time our industry is staring down the barrel of a powerful gun that can soon dictate the means, price, availability of content creation and distribution if we do not figure out novel ways to move forward. Can we use P2P networks and torrents to help promote and advertise our content and services? Can we think of peer distribution and payment networks that could work with us? Can we think of ways to embed links into our content that drives people back to our websites where we can engage them in many more products and services that may be more appropriate for their economic status? You may get to learn more from these people and hear the reasons why they grabbed unauthorized content. Maybe that creates an opportunity for a follow-on product or derivative.

I hope you see enough compelling reasons to go DRM-free. Because to us, DRM-free is something that the publishing industry should embrace not just for one day, but forever.

Sleep well my friends.

Photo: “Eliminate DRM by YayAdrian, on Flickr

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  • Jason

    Thank you for your rational discourse on this issue. The video game developer/publisher Ubisoft saddles games with heavy DRM. The end result: An increase in piracy for those games on PC. Meanwhile, Polish studio CDProjeckt RED released the Witcher 2 video game DRM free on gog.com, as well as through Steam. That game sold 1.1 million copies – and climbing – on PC alone. More than Ubisoft often sells across 3 platforms. DRM does not deter piracy; generally, it is such a pain for legit customers that it increases piracy.

  • Colin

    Even if publishers start releasing books with DRM, then won’t Amazon and B&N still add it back in so they can control how many copies of the book a customer keeps on their reading devices?

  • Peter

    Your evidence of torrent availability is skewed by your search terms. The more words you add to your string the more hits you’ll get. [ "head first" "design pattern" torrent ] without the brackets returns me 132,000 hits on Google. Yes, still far more than most mortals would desire, but not quite your shock horror headline.

  • Bob McConnell

    Mike,

    How much time and money do you spend getting copies of a new book distributed to people who you know will review it and publish their reviews? How difficult is it to insure favorable yet reasonable reviews that your potential audience will actually trust? How much of your potential market can you actually reach this way?

    Those “pirate copies” on torrents and other networks simply bypass this review process and allow your audience to do their own personal reviews. This also eliminates the unavoidable bias of the reviewer that might not have revealed some of the best features of a book.

    The good folks at the Baen Free Library figured this out a long time ago. Some of those writers have experienced a resurgence of popularity as a result.

    As a side effect, it can also insure that good reference materials will still be available after you decide they are no longer a viable product. But I suspect the life of such books will also be extended because they no longer depend on the shelf life of those early reviews.

  • Mike Hendrickson

    Colin-

    I appreciate that we cannot stop Amazon and B&N from adding their form of DRM, that’s up to them to figure out. If readers want choice, they can purchase digital editions directly from O’Reilly and put them on any device they have and in the most common formats. We believe if you purchase it, you own it. We are not going to tell you *which device* you own it for.

    Bob McConnell

    We spend a lot less money now days as we provide DRM-free copies to reviewers who prefer digital editions. Also, we do not try to ensure favorable reviews, anyone can comment on an O’Reilly title on our site or Amazon and we do not hide negative reviews, rather we learn from them.

    We do not insure favorable reviews. We let reviewers say what they want. I am not aware of anyone in our PR or Editorial groups insuring favorable reviews. I am also not keen on pointing a reviewer to the best features of a book, but would rather they find them, expose them and let others know. This is a natural learning process for us, and for our readers.

    That being said, good reviews do seem to influence a book’s sales, to some degree. If you look at Amazon sales rank and review Stars, you can can find titles that are both loved and hated yet they sell well, and others have horrendous sales ranks for the same mix of reviews. You also know that some people say they love a book and turn around and give it two stars. So is that good or bad? There are too many variables that contribute to a book’s success to pinpoint what makes the most difference.

    I do think the torrent sites serve as another kind of review. Many of these sites tell how many times a title was downloaded, or which ones have the most activity. In essence that is a type of review, if you end up with more downloads. Like I said above, I’d hate be be on one of these sites, and yet nobody cares enough about my product to move the download ticker. If you were to search for Java on one of the sites and your Java title is the 30th in a list of 35, well that publisher should find out why. Again, lots of variables here, so publishers need to use this sort of discovery as another datapoint.

    Thanks for your comments.

    • Eric Windisch

      There are books available on Amazon that lack DRM. Tor books are a good example. Are the O’Reilly books on Amazon sold sans-DRM? Can O’Reilly request/push this?

  • Øyvind

    Awesome. It’s been ages since I read an O’Reilly book (I do have a couple dead tree ones in the shelf still though), but now I’ll just have to buy a few to support the DRM-freeness.

  • Ian E. Gorman

    Don’t Read Me (DRM) was tried with floppy disks in the 80’s and early 90’s (they called it “copy protection”. Didn’t work, caused trouble for legitimate users.

    Apple gave up on Don’t Read Me with MP3 files.

    Don’t Read Me was tried with CDs. Didn’t work well, even when a large Japanese company implemented it by installing a virus on the purchaser’s computer, caused trouble for legitimate users.

    Don’t Read Me seems to be even less effective against piracy, but just as effective against legitimate users.

    I hope the market forces and technical problems that worked against previous attempts at Don’t Read Me will be just as effective in the case of ebooks.

  • jjj

    The sad part is that very few learned anything from how the music industry handled piracy for the last .. (too) many years and instead of innovating and seeing the internet as an opportunity to jump ahead of the competition they take the same route. Everybody is afraid of taking risks and they are just trying to push the same business model even if it’s suicidal.

  • Anonymous

    Mike, I really like that whenever you make a post you always include the data to back it up.  Thanks for sharing this.  It’s good to read a DRM related post that isn’t hysterical.