Just Click No for DRM

lock-drm-binding-contract-948442_960_720My understanding is that when an author publishes a book on Amazon that there is a box, pre-checked for your convenience, to elect putting DRM or Digital Rights Management on your book. I’ve also heard that once you say yes, you’re stuck with your choice. I’m going to argue that the best choice is to unclick that box. But first, the case for sticking with the default.

Copying an MP3, ebook, or other digit content is normally a trivial exercise. You do it every time you send your latest opus to an editor as an email attachment, copy your final manuscript to an external hard drive for backup, or drag a copy of your work-in-progress to a jump drive so you can polish it a bit at work. (We’ll pretend that last part is just while you’re on break or lunch.) In essence, DRM is a scheme that is supposed to prevent someone from copying digital content or that prevents it from being used on a device other than those authorized. For example, if someone purchased your book and gave a copy to a friend, DRM should in theory prevent the friend from being able to read the book on their Kindle.

When presented with the choice of DRM most uninitiated authors are going to go with the default (that must be the best choice, right?) or investigate to see what DRM is, and end up at the same place. Why would you want to make it easy for people to pirate copies of your book? Think of all the money you’ll miss out on from any lost sales. It seems like a logical choice. It probably isn’t.

There are many good arguments that have been put forth for why piracy doesn’t hurt the author. Some authors, Joe Konrath for one, have purposely made some of his books available on pirate sites and detected no change in sales patterns. What studies I’ve found indicate that Konrath’s experience is the norm. If your book is being pirated, the majority of people who are getting your book wouldn’t have bought it anyway. You might view it the same as running a KDP Select free day. Some number of people will get your book for free. Of those, lots of them will never read it. Some portion of those who do read it will like it well enough to search out your other books.

But the real reason for not putting DRM on your book is that it doesn’t work. The real pirates can remove it and have a DRM-free version of your ebook file in less time than it’s taken you to read this far. Anyone with a modicum of technical knowledge, the desire, and no qualms about doing what is technically breaking the law, can figure out how and get what they need to accomplish it without much more effort. Those who want to get past it, will. DRM is nothing but an irritating speed bump.

This leaves us with the people you should care about, your paying customers. Most of them won’t care. However, there is a non-trivial portion of them who do. They aren’t looking to rip you off (remember, they paid). But they have concerns about protecting their investment. They’d like to be able to backup their ebook library to their computer, in case their ereader gives out or they get an upgrade. Sure, they can download the individual books from the retailer in most cases, but that’s much more time consuming than a mass copy/paste. Try downloading 100 books from your Manage Your Content page at Amazon. If they’ve used multiple vendors, it gets even more complicated. In fact, if your book is available at Smashwords, there is a non-DRM version available there. Why are you treating your Amazon customers different? Then there is the question of what happens if the vendor goes out of business. If I had a large investment in ebooks for a Nook, I’d be concerned. I’m sure there are people in that paying customer group who have other reasons why they’d prefer non-DRMed books.

Really what it comes down to is that the people DRM is intended to stop, won’t be. The people it is intended to not effect, it might, even if only in minor ways. Why would you choose to do something which has only a minimal impact on the problem it is designed to cure if it will irritate even a small number of paying customers ?


Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

25 thoughts on “Just Click No for DRM”

  1. I’ve come to much the same conclusion based on other discussions I’ve read about DRM. It will only stop the non-tech savvy folks like me from sharing. The ones who make a habit of it won’t find it more of a deterrent than a wrapper on a candy bar. Unfortunately my education came too late for my first two books, and as you say, once you’ve chosen it it can’t be removed.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Yvonne. I suppose you might be able to change the DRM setting by republishing the book, but that has way too much downside to consider.

  2. Spot on, Al. My first e-reader was a Sony. I migrated all those books to my Nook without a problem. Try doing that with a Kindle.

    Now that the Sony Store is kaput, nearly all of my original Sony epubs have been moved to the Kobo account. Note that I said *nearly* all. I think I lost a few in the transition — but I’ve still got the original files, so it’s all good.

  3. Adding DRM does nothing to deter piracy. All it takes is one person who has the two minutes it takes to crack the DRM, and the DRM-free version will spread through the internet. People who want a cracked version of a DRM-laden book will pretty much always be able to find it. And free, easy to use DRM-breaking plugins are available for popular programs like Calibre. It’s not even illegal to remove DRM from your own ebooks (for personal use) in most cases, here in the USA.

    Large publishers are beginning to learn the same thing. TOR is releasing all their books without DRM, and in the year+ since they made the switch, saw NO increase in piracy (they are using a piracy tracking service) and saw an increase in sales (which may or may not be related to dropping the DRM).

    DRM does not stop pirates. It actually just helps companies like Amazon retain a lock on their users. It is the cornerstone of Amazon’s Kindle-Walled-Garden that the major publishers continue to (mostly) insist upon using DRM.

    That said, pirates are not *entirely* beneficial. Having someone pirate your work in the US, where piracy is still not very socially acceptable, and most people prefer to buy content, is unlikely to do damage. It might even help spur sales.

    The downside is obvious though: what happens if the culture becomes accepting of piracy? What happens when copying and sharing work becomes normal and accepted? What happens when more people download cracked ebooks than buy new ones? That’s what concerns publishers, and ought to niggle at writers as well.

    I believe that the key there is to continue educating our readers. We love our readers. They often love us, too. So…ask them. Nicely. Make the books easily available everywhere, for a reasonable price, and people are less likely to pirate them. Make sure readers know that when they steal a book instead of buying it, it hurts the person who wrote it and deters that person from being able to write more.

    We’re a culture who loves our artists, really. If your readers love you, I think they will work with you to ensure you are able to continue putting stuff out. 🙂

    1. Excellent comments, Kevin. That’s the key to my point, that DRM doesn’t accomplish what it is intended to. I agree about your comments on pirates in general and cultural acceptability. I’ve pointed out a few times to people the exact things you bring up about who is hurt by those who pirate. The key is that is the total buying experience (cost, convenience, etc) are reasonable, people will chose not to go searching on pirate sites because whatever they save isn’t worth the time it takes.

      On the subject of pirate sites, I recently read one study that found one thing that appears to be worthwhile is sending DMCA take down notices when you find sites that have your books. Whether or not future studies will agree is something to keep an eye on, but this is at least something that is hassling a guilty party.,

    2. Always like getting your slant on things, Kevin. One answer I’d have on the “what if everybody accepted piracy” thing is that that’s pretty much what happened to music. Napster mp3’s were all over with no social or ethical stigma. And what happened was, it didn’t shatter musician’s careers. You could make a case for the idea that it harmed big publishers, but not indie or fan-beloved musicians. People cheated on over-priced stuff, in other words, but were not so hot to short the artists they admire.

      1. Lin,
        Interesting thoughts. I always use the music biz to anticipate where I expect publishing to be headed. There are other industries (movie videos and CDs) that have some value as well, but music is, IMO, a much better indication. There are some differences because musicians today (really I suspect to lesser or greater degrees always) make a significant portion of their income from touring.

        However, the big label system is much like trad pub. Technology has made it possible for an independent to be able to afford to pay for the entire production process on their own and get worldwide digital distribution. The same is true in publishing. I’d venture a guess that, although the odds are still against any one person making a living doing either, there are more musicians making a living solely from their music today than at any point since recorded music became the norm, if not ever. I don’t think anyone would question this is also true of authors. Publishing is just lagging behind the music business by 5 or 10 years.

        1. I have heard musicians say that they have to tour more because piracy had diminished their sales. But others emphatically argue against that.
          Movies is kind of like mp3’s (I know people with huge drives packed full of swiped movie files they never watch) but hasn’t gone the same way because of a factor that might be important. The NetFlix “all you can eat” model. I think it’s very possible that it makes acquiring pirated films kind of pointless when you can watch tons of them for $7 a month.
          There have been some pilot book sites like that and I don’t think they are chipping into amazon much. Could be kind of scary. Or could be another thing that divides the interests of establikshed trad pub authors and indies.

          1. I agree, Lin. That is one big difference in movies. Whether the companies modeled after Netflix for books take off could be interesting. Whether that is good or not, I’m not sure. I can see both good and bad in it.

            My suspicion is that the musicians who feel they’ve been hurt might be those who were doing very well with a big label while those without a label deal who were selling CDs at their gigs are finding the market opening up to them and doing much better.

            I expect the Pattersons, Grishams, and Clancys aren’t going to do as well because *if* we assume the same money is getting spent, it is going to get spread among more people. Then we’ve got a subset of the authors who will be doing better due to less middlemen taking their cut …

  4. You’ve made this argument to me before, Al, and I’m coming around. As a luddite who has been made to feel paranoid about anything to do with computer security, it seems somewhat counterintuitive. But, as God is my witness, next time it will be “Damn the DRM! Full speed ahead!”.

  5. All good points, Al. I know when I started on Amazon, I just went with the default, figuring it was the default because it was the best option.

    Given that I also publish through Smashwords and it’s an irritant to paying customers, I’ve gone DRM free on my most recent publication and plan to do the future ones that way.

    1. Thanks for the comment, RJ. The anti-Amazon crowd likes to complain about Amazon’s “walled-garden,” but it really only is one when the publisher of a specific book chooses to make it one. The trad-publishers are slow coming around (Tor, as Kevin pointed out being one significant exception). This is one more area where indies can and should be ahead of the curve.

  6. Excellent points. I chose to ignore DRM for one simple reason – even though it’s an electronic version of the book, I wanted to treat it like a physical copy. You buy a physical copy of the book, then you can lend it or give it to whoever you want. By placing DRM on an e-book, you’re effectively treating it as if it’s something more than its physical counterpart. Granted, you don’t get to keep your physical copy when you pass it on, but either way, you’re free to share it. DRM simply provides a motivating factor to pirate your e-book or to take the small amount, albeit irritating, time to crack it.

    1. Thanks, JM. You bring up an interesting point. I think we all agree (at least so far) that widespread pirating isn’t okay, but that DRM doesn’t prevent it. What I’ll call social sharing, is another issue. The inability to do this with a few exceptions (Kindle’s limited lending facility and the ability to share with devices on the same account, for those who get their book from Amazon.).

      If I were an author, I wouldn’t be bothered by social sharing, but as a reader, choose not to do it because technically it’s not legal and I generally limit my lawbreaking to speed limits. 🙂

      However, this is one area people point to as a disadvantage of ebooks, the other one that I see as valid is that you don’t really own anything, the book is just licensed to you. I think how culture views this, as Kevin discussed in another context earlier, and whether the way things are done and viewed will evolve over time is going to be interesting to observe.

  7. Exactly, Al. It really frustrates me to be unable to, for instance, copy a line from a DRM ebook to quote or review. The entire “proprietary model” of ebooks is lame and DRM is the silliest extreme.
    And as you point out, the only upside of DRM–preventing piracy–not only does not work, since any tech moron can remove it with free software (trust me on this) but is useless in real world terms.
    Cory Doctorow said that for indie writers, “The problem is not piracy, the problem is obscurity”. That’s the point of the title of my recently published collection, “Pirate This Book”.
    DRM is a trap and it’s good for you to bring that to the attention of those who haven’t figured it out yet.

    1. Thanks, Lin. Sometimes we do agree. 🙂

      Cory Doctorow has a lot of good ideas. Even those things he says that I have some reservations about (very few), he gets me to look at the issue from a different perspective, never a bad thing, and gets the wheels turning in my head.

      As for your newest book, I’m guessing the title is a bit of a homage to Abbie Hoffman. I like.

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