Tor and DRM and Libraries

In the midst of my illness laden life a week ago, I managed to catch the announcement that Tor was going to drop DRM from its books starting in July. Perhaps it was the fever, but it seemed to generate a lot of buzz and speculation about whether this would be the beginning of the end for eBook DRM. It was wrapped up in optimism as to which publishers would follow suit and when, as if it was a logical conclusion.

In following up on it for this post, the first thing I noticed in the BBC article is that Macmillan called it an “experiment”. This phrase alone raises enough flags to starts its own color guard. Sure, it’s a fancier term for “trying something out”, but it means there are metrics that are being followed and measured closely. For myself, this raises a few more questions to ponder. What kind of timeline is this experiment going to run? Months? Years? What are the variables that are being tracked? Sales? Bit torrent file movements? Just how big a dataset are we talking here?

Like other recent moves in publishing, I have a hunch that this is going to be watched by the other publishers before making their own move. This isn’t something for the short term, it’s going to be for the long term; however, it does mean that attitudes are shifting within the industry. But in the meantime, I highly advise against holding your breath.

In the meantime, I don’t believe DRM is going anywhere. The fear of piracy is such an emotional trigger that anything that appears to make it easier will have a hard time offering a logical argument for removing a barrier. It’s a very human response to overestimate risks that involve an emotional aspect when the actual facts and statistics prove that the risk is low or non-existent. Consider the fear of dying from an act of terrorism (extremely low) versus dying from a car accident (statistically much more likely). The former kept us from flying commercially for a year after 9/11 while fatal car accidents can be found in the news nearly everyday. After years of sensational news stories about file sharing and bit torrents, it’s hard not to imagine that the first reaction to any discussion about eBooks and DRM is not an emotional one.

If there is one group that will not see the end of DRM anytime soon (if ever), that would be libraries. Given the current apprehension to eBook lending, DRM is the only assurance that companies like Overdrive can give to publishers to ensure that these eBooks don’t virtually walk on them. It will be the ‘friction’ that publishers want to ensure that the retail transaction is smoother than the library one and to offer a non-existent guarantee that a book does not overstay in someone’s device. With eBooks, purchasing will always be encouraged over lending, whether it is from the library or one person to the next.

And so it begins, the long wait while the Tor experiment runs its course. DRM is not dead, it’s just in a transitional period; it is especially not dead for libraries.

4 thoughts on “Tor and DRM and Libraries

  1. This is why my ereader mostly contains Cites & Insights, titles from Baen Books, and converted Linux Documentation Project titles. At least they’re not broken by design…

  2. Baen’s been doing DRM-free for years, an experiment seemingly working for them because it is still in effect. Has ‘mainstream’ publishing not noticed Baen’s efforts because of a perception of genre audiences?

    You’re right in the fact that DRM for libraries is not going away anytime soon. It will take a paradigm shift in the publishing world to realize the value of DRM-free to their sales efforts. It’s an understandable publisher’s viewpoint because non-DRM eBooks offered through libraries is seen as analogous to giving away for free your product which is counter to common sense for increasing sales.

    Piracy will always exist. Those who want to will always figure out a way to get it free. That population is not your customer and never will be. Then there are those that like to share discovered authors and titles with friends and will still go out and buy titles from these discoveries. Those are your customers. Insisting on DRM removes the ability to expose authors to new customers. And let us not forget, DRM can be removed easily.

    Here’s where maybe the shift in thinking can happen. Most authors won’t get rich writing; most won’t even make a living from writing. Publishers or agents may or may not convey that to writers but it is seemingly a fact of life. What can libraries do for publishers with a catalog full of writers trying for exposure in a world overexposed? Can libraries increase the worth of mid-list authors by keeping them circulating and in the public’s consideration? Wouldn’t this be better than mid-list (or less) authors getting lost in the Amazon shuffle?

  3. I was a librarian back in the 1980s, when I found myself involved in Soviet industrial espionage against the U.S. I became a double agent (controlled asset) for the FBI. I’ve published an ebook about my experiences. From the beginning, I decided not to have DRM on this ebook because it places too much of a burden on readers.

    I also write a blog. Here is my latest post that librarians will find “intriguing”: http://roofmanthespy.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/in-the-beginning/#more-559

  4. I think it’s very reasonable to wonder about the details of this DRM-free experiment. But you know how publishers complain that they don’t have enough data about library ebook checkouts? Expect that this experiment’s results won’t get published either. If the experiment is a success, and DRM-free ebooks sell better (+ other conditions), Tor will have a competitive advantage. I wouldn’t expect them to give that up by sharing what they learned. We’ll probably have to intuit what they learned by watching their next moves.

    “Experiment” does raise some red flags, but it then it seems like everything is an experiment these days. Lots of EULAs explain that a service can be shut down at any time. I don’t know if you remember when Google announced that they were going to shut down Google Video, with very little notice. Since many videos were only hosted there (and not YouTube), a crowd-sourced downloading effort was started to build an archive that could be uploaded to another site. Google relented, but they don’t always. Companies experiment with products and services, but they run those experiments on users/customers. So, nothing to worry about. :)

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