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DRM for e-books: Repeating history, not learning from it

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Kindle by normal books

Will the makers of e-book readers follow the music industry in dropping DRM?

The music business was probably the first big segment of the entertainment industry to need to figure out the Internet. Napster forced the industry to think about it because Napster’s original version used peer-to-peer technology, which allowed users share their own music files and copy others’.

Napster was shut down in 2001, but if nothing else it showed the pent up demand for music that could be easily accessed on the Internet. This was initially taken by the industry to mean consumers wanted everything for free. But in 2003 Apple managed to get the major players to buy in to a digital music store that used digital rights management (DRM).

Listeners hated DRM because it restricted their ability to enjoy the music they paid for. Towards the end of the last decade businesses began to realize that DRM could be a headache for them as well, so eventually they wised up. By the end of 2011 all the major music stores were DRM free.

Short version: It was a hassle and there were some growing pains, but in the end the industry figured out how to deliver its product in a way consumers were happy to pay for. Lessons learned, all’s well, hooray!

The lessons haven’t been learned as widely as some of us hoped; the book industry seems to have spent the last fifteen years in a state of suspended animation. It is in the process of making exactly the same kinds of mistakes the music industry was making a decade ago.

I learned that last week when author Barry Eisler had a big blowout sale. I enjoy his writing, so I clicked over to his site when I found out about it. Eisler is very tech savvy. He has embraced digital distribution, has a full store on his site, offers his books in multiple file types (including MP3), and seems to get this brave new world we’ve entered. As I’ve aquired new technology I’ve been able to find his work in compatible formats. It’s a very reader-friendly stance.

(He also maintains a thoughtful political blog and has enthusiastically embraced the netroots – even naming characters in his stories after bloggers. [He has not named one of them after me though, a personal slight I am not at all bitter or resentful about.])

The sale in question was a Kindle exclusive: the e-book required either a Kindle device or app. The Kindle app is pretty ubiquitous, but I happen to have one of the few e-readers (Nook) where it is not available. Amazon’s desire for an exclusive ended up excluding some potential customers. That will probably always be the case with DRM – no device will be able to do everything.

The tech industry right now is churning out lots of different devices, operating systems and form factors in an attempt to get the One True Gadget – the thing you’ll take with you everywhere and use for everything. That’s a lovely aspiration, but I don’t see it happening.

What I see instead is people wanting to only carry around one thing at a time, and rotating through several: Smart phone for everyday use, tablet for the beach, laptop for the road, etc. If you can’t get the book you paid for on each of those devices, it’s a pain. As a reader I want to be able to put a book on everything as soon as I buy it so I always have a local (non-Internet dependent) copy – no matter which thing I run out of the house with.

That’s what I do with music. When I buy an album I immediately put it on my PC, MP3 player, laptop and so on. I want to put it on my existing stuff, and new stuff as I acquire it. I want to be able to use it, in other words.

The book industry isn’t there yet; it’s at odds with its customers. Readers want to be able to read the books they buy, publishers want locked down exclusives, and creators (even forward thinking ones like Eisler) are left to navigate those waters as best they can.

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to see where this all goes. Users will hate DRM because it will be a hassle, it will depress sales, in a few years publishers will begin to have technological and public relations headaches associated with maintaining it, and some time around 2018 or so they will realize (as some of their more enlightened peers already do) that the best solution is to keep it off everything. It would be nice if we could just save everyone the trouble and fast forward to the happy ending right now.

Photo by kodomut released under a Creative Commons license.

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