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.