Why Digital Rights Management is a Bad Idea

From whom are you protecting that content?

From whom are you protecting that content?

Or The Fine Art of Making your Customers into Criminals

It must have been in 2000 or around there, when I had just three short stories out and electronic books seemed a thing of the distant future or perhaps of the shady present, that I for the first and last time endorsed some form of digital rights management and donated money to Harlan Ellison’s quixotic attempts to hunt down pirates.

Within the year I’d realized not just the futility of these efforts and that I’d not lose any money – not real money I might have earned – to these acts of piracy, and might in fact acquire some new readers (though given the demographics of pirating and reading, this is not highly likely either.)

It didn’t take me much longer to understand the dangers of applying digital rights management to your property and thereby not only making it difficult for the customer to purchase it and enjoy it, but also implicitly accusing your customer of intended dishonesty.

Lest anyone accuse me of endorsing piracy or even having pirated books: I will confess somewhat shamefacedly that I have never in my life attempted to pirate or copy a book that wasn’t legitimately mine.

I am in fact so ridiculously aware of how little most writers make, and how much pleasure they give me that I often try to compensate them for books they were already paid for.  Back in the days when I was dead flat broke and could not afford even a paperback without feeding my family pancakes for dinner for a week, I cruised the “rejects” of the used bookstores nearby every week.  This was the bookshelf where books that were either too battered or too strange to be saleable were abandoned by former owners who couldn’t trade them in for credit.  I spent the early nineties happily reading tattered gothic romances and nineteenth century biology manuals, because it was better than not reading.  Yes, most of those books were awful – but every once in a while I found one that seemed exceptionally well written.  If the author was still alive, I would send a fan letter to the publisher, and inside it a dollar bill, for the pleasure the author had given me.  (I never got an answer, and I wonder how many authors I confused.)

My first run in with Digital Rights Management was not in books, but in music.  I can no longer remember the details, so bear with me.

Like most writers, I often need a specific piece of music to write to.

As I was trying to write the opening of a novel, I realized the “soundtrack” at the back of my mind was of a British album that I’d last heard in the middle eighties.  I also realized having the album would make the chapter easier to write.  So, I start hunting for it, to find it, both used on Amazon in CD, and for download in this small music service that had just been acquired by one of the giants of the field.

I hated spending the (extra) money to have it in electronic right then, but I wanted to send the proposal to my agent the next day.  So I bit the bullet and bought the album electronic.

It downloaded, DRMed and with a password that would supposedly unlock the album.  I tried it.  It wouldn’t unlock.  I tried again.  Still wouldn’t unlock.  I called customer service and was told “so sorry, with our being bought those codes are messed up, so here is the new code.”  I tried that and, ta-da, the album opened, revealing the song titles.  I thanked the customer service representative, hung up, and cued the music to play on the computer.

The first song starts and a pop up appears – the code isn’t right, so they think I pirated the album, and are locking up the rest of the album.

I call customer representatives again.  “It shouldn’t be doing that.”

Two hours later, I realize I will not be able to listen to that music or finish my chapter that day, tell them I want to return the album for a refund, and I order the (much cheaper) used CD from Amazon.

In my mind that experience will always stand for “the joys of Digital Rights Management” and I will always remember my fury at being accused of stealing something I’d in fact gone through a great deal of trouble to purchase.

I’ve heard of people who have gone through the same experiences with books.  In fact, I’ve found myself frustrated trying to buy a digital book that was only available for a device I didn’t own.  If the book has no digital rights management software it is possible to buy it and to convert it to the device you do have.  Otherwise, the book is inaccessible to you and might in fact disappear forever if your device breaks down.

Audible, which I adore, has pulled this sort of thing on me, by their “three devices” rule.  Since they insist on downloading into my computer’s player (where I do not want them) this restricts me to two of my mp3 players, and when one of those broke on me, I had to go through a great deal of trouble to activate another one.

The moment you realize your just-dead reading device took your entire library with it.

The moment you realize your just-dead reading device took your entire library with it.

So, we have established that whatever else DRM is, it is bad customer relations.  It is predicated on the idea that everyone is a thief and there is no decency in the world. Honest people, of course, resent it.

But beyond that, is it needed?  Does it have validity?  Surely we all hear of sites with hundreds, sometimes thousands of pirated books, don’t we?  Is that fair to the author or the publisher of the book?

Fair is a notion from kindergarten. Unauthorized copies of intellectual content are something that has always happened and will always happen: from the kid who copies down a favorite poem by hand, to the teen who makes a compilation of songs for his beloved (remember mixed tapes?), to the European student who photocopies a hard-to-find book or article.

All of this was happening long before electronic books.

But don’t electronic books make it much easier to be a pirate?

To an extent.  But there are psychological conditions, trade offs and compensations for electronic piracy.

First of all, most readers, particularly readers who really like an author, wouldn’t dream of pirating his or her book.  Piracy seems to happen only when someone wants to “try” an author; when the person desperately wants a book and can’t buy it for some reason; and as bragging rights among pirates.  For the later, books that are intricately locked up are more likely to be a target.  There is no glory in “setting free” a book that anyone can copy.

Second, there are trade offs.  It’s almost guaranteed you will not get pirated until your book reaches a certain level of popularity.  In fact until Darkship Thieves, there were very few of my books on the torrents.  No one knew I existed, and therefore no one could be bothered pirating me. So, when you find yourself pirated, it is a sign you’re going up in the world, which should serve as some compensation.

More to the point there are people who monitor these sites for “what they should be reading” and who, if they like your book, are more likely to buy more of them.

However, over the years, the experience with these pirate sites is that while people pirate them and put them up, as a sort of feat of anarchistic triumphalism, most of the people who download those books don’t read them, and are not the kind of people who would bother buying your books anyway. So, your book might be out there for free, but people who want to read it are more likely than not to buy it legitimately. (I still send take down notices, particularly to people selling illegal copies of my books. Making a profit from my work and not giving me any of it is a definite no-no.)

If you think all your clients look like this, maybe you should reexamine your assumptions.

If you think all your clients look like this, maybe you should reexamine your assumptions.

On the other hand, putting your book out with no DRM – all of my books coming out since last year, and into the future, are non-DRM, my having severed relations with all the publishers who use it – cements relations with your customers, makes them feel you trust them, and – more importantly – makes it possible for them to disseminate my work.

Every so often I get a letter from a fan saying “I loved your story x, may I send a copy to my friend to see if she’ll like it?”  My answer is always yes.  Why not?  Over the years we’ve loaned out our paper books countless times, in efforts to actively “evangelize” our favorite authors to all our friends.  Nine times out of ten it works too, and the friend becomes a fast reader.

But, you say, in this case the friend has a copy he can keep!

And?  That copy will either get read, loved, and give me a new reader or it will lay unread in someone’s e-book reader.  In either case I lost nothing.

As proof of this concept, my publisher – Baen Books – has for years now maintained a “Free library” where they give away copies of the first book in a series… thereby often resurrecting nearly-dead series into active growth and readership once more.

This technique has worked on me more than once, as well.  Forget the books I’ve downloaded for free from Baen Books, or Amazon, which caused me to go out and buy another ten or twenty books. Let’s talk about paper books I’ve bought used, at a ridiculously low price, which then caused me to buy everything by the author. This is how I discovered Terry Pratchett, many years ago.

In fact, it is a technique well known from the drug world: “the first hit is free.”

Pirates, by definition don't buy things.  And your fans by definition, won't pirate you.

Pirates, by definition don’t buy things. And your fans by definition, won’t pirate you.

Beyond all that, consigning a book to “one device only” fills the customer with dread that if the device breaks he’ll lose his book. It will make anyone think twice before paying a decent price for a book.  And, if the person has a family that all like to read, the thought of buying four copies of a book will discourage them from buying the book.

It’s not that I believe “information wants to be free.”  While this might be true of “information” such as the rainfall in the Amazon in 1979, it’s certainly not true of narrative art, which cost someone years of apprenticeship and years of craftsmanship.  However, giving books away sells books.  Putting books up without DRM will actually lessen the number of books stolen.

Beyond all that, trying to keep pirates from stealing your book is not only quixotic, but it’s a particularly silly windmill to tilt at.

Back in the dark ages, when e-books were a dim, futuristic vision, the idea that people could “just copy” our work scared us, and we imagined some super code that would protect our precious output.

We were wrong.  There are always ways, including doing a print screen on an e-book, and then scanning it in with character recognition. Or for the books that have printed editions, they can simply be scanned in. There is no DRM program that can defeat that.

So why should you annoy your customers and call all of them thieves and cheats by implication?

Let them buy your book and read it in the family (I’m much more likely to buy a book if all of us can read it – just as with paper books) and even pass it around on to their friends.

You might “lose” a sale or two, but you will gain new fans who will in the future give you many more sales.


Images courtesy shutterstock, 1st© pterwort, 2nd© dreamerve, 3rd©Kzenon, 4th©Fotokvadrat