Back to school: Digital rights management

My final post to the discussion forum for the Whitireia Diploma in Publishing.

On Digital rights management (DRM)

DRM makes me queasy. Whichever way you cut it it’s a hard one to know really which way to go. Ultimately I feel drawn to the DRM-free side of the argument, merely for the sake of making life easy on consumers. They are after all the last people that publishers want to get off-side with. If I were a publisher I’d give DRM-free a shot and see how it went; it just seems like a suck-it-and-see kind of thing. At the very least follow some of John Noring’s suggestions to keep the DRM as light and the file as flexible for the reader as possible.

It’s a vexed question, and the hardest bit to handle is the question of who pays the author when no one buys the book? I don’t think anyone quite has an answer to that, but nor do they have any substantial facts and figures about the effect DRM-lite or DRM-free might have on sales.

But the alternative question is what’s the real threat? Sure, one person might buy a book and mention it to a friend who’ll ask to borrow it, a situation that’s no different to a print book. The fear is that ebooks are that much easier to distribute therefore the peron who buys the book won’t just lend it to a friend who who asks to borrow but will for some reason send it to all their friends just in case they all want to borrow it as well. I don’t think that’s likely.

Where the argument falls down is that the friend who borrowed the book doesn’t have to give it back under a DRM-free model. I’m not sure that’s a huge problem; if they didn’t like the book, nothing lost and nothing gained. If they did, they’ll probably be buying others by the same author without waiting to borrow copies first. Like NAP’s Jensen says, DRM gets in the way of discoverability, whether by search engines or people. Conversely, unlocking content makes it findable and turns it into its own marketing device.

It does make it sounds as though publishers are being held to ransom – don’t use DRM or the vandals at the gates will pirate your books. Create a relationship that the readers wants you to feed – subscription models for up-to-date titles, pre-releases, special deals etc.

I think there’s something in the idea of micro- or distributed patronage and I’d like to see it take off. It’s a kind of dreamy world though: Radiohead pulled it off (I forget the album — maybe not one of the better ones…), and This American Life makes regular calls for donations to support its podcasts; Kiva‘s a different take on the same idea, and Brooklyn Museum supports a fan network through donations. These are all examples where there’s a community and organisation that drives the patronage. I’m not so sure how that translates to lonely writers and their often mistrusted publishers. (And I say that with no slur intended on publishers, but more to point to a misunderstanding of the value of publishers held by many readers.)

Is that the real challenge for publishers? To build genuine communities that readers want to belong to and will feel is worth continuing to contribute to financially. Maybe at the same time break down some of the misunderstanding about the role of the publisher and the restrictions in which they operate. And further, demonstrate to the readers the collaboration that takes place between author, editor and publisher, and ultimately reader. Letting readers know how valuable their contribution is to maintaining the ecosystem might be one of the biggest sales yet.

In short, forget about DRM and think about your readers, and make them think about you.