I have been reading a piece by Charlie Stross, which has put me in mind of the Silicon Valley wisecrack: A standard is a very good thing — everyone should have one.
Stross makes the interesting point that publishers’ insistence on using digital rights management (DRM) software is helping to make Amazon into an even more potent force. What is the bigger threat, copyright piracy, or an industry totally dominated by one company?
Before I get into the specifics of Stross’s argument, a word about Stross himself. He is an accomplished author of science fiction of a cerebral variety. I urge his “Accelerando” on everyone; it is Joycean in spirit, far-out in story. You would expect that an author, especially a commercial one like Stross, would take a dim view of copyright piracy and be supportive of DRM. But Stross is also a member of the technogeek tribe and is thus passionately opposed to DRM. He makes his argument against DRM on the basis of what earns publishers and authors the most income. Geek or no geek, as Samuel Johnson said, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Stross views publishers who insist on DRM as cutting their own throats.
Let’s imagine the world of e-books as many people naïvely thought it would be and many people still believe it could be. In such a world, there are many e-book vendors, none with a dominant market share. The competition among these purveyors of e-books keeps them all honest. A publisher in this world creates a single type of digital file (this was part of the impetus behind the development of the ePub format), and that file could then run on any of the many competing ebook devices. In this scenario, publishers have an interest in DRM because it appears to prevent unauthorized use of their property.
The world we live in, however, does indeed have a dominant player, Amazon, with over 50% market share. The number two player, Barnes & Noble, has less than half the share of Amazon. The other e-book competitors (Kobo, Google, Apple, Sony, an assortment of others) do not pose any threat to Amazon. Amazon has a proprietary platform, which includes Amazon’s own DRM. Indeed, Amazon would never have been able to get publishers to support the original Kindle device if the Kindle did not use DRM. Even scholarly publishers, whose books may sell as few as 300 copies over their lifetime, fear having their books pirated. Heck, if you put an unprotected copy of “Economic Policy of the Byzantine Empire: An Historical Approach” into the marketplace, in no time at all you might see millions of pirated copies zipping around the Internet. Publishers, like authors, are dreamers.
Stross’s point is that Amazon’s dominant market position makes DRM undesirable for publishers because most customers prefer to trade with the largest vendor. In effect, DRM is locking customers out of other e-book formats. This in turn increases Amazon’s market share further, to publishers’ peril, as Amazon is no longer the warm and fuzzy business it was when it started out. On the other hand, publishers could make their books available without DRM, which would mean that they could be viewed on any ebook device. Thus Amazon’s huge market share would have a very strong #2 competitor: the sum of all the other e-book companies. So, publishers, choose: DRM and Amazon’s growing market dominance, or no DRM and a number of vendors able to compete on stronger terms with Amazon. And, yes, no DRM would probably increase piracy. What’s better, the pirates or Amazon?
As an aside, it should be noted that this is not merely a matter for book publishers and trade book publishers in particular. My observation is that the publishers of research journals have been slow to pick up on what is developing with the infrastructure of the publishing industry. Random House is the canary in the coal mine; what is happening to the trade publishers, the loss of control to a small number of consumer technology companies (Amazon, Google, and Apple, with Facebook perhaps waiting in the wings), is leaking into scholarly books and will find its way into serials. Amazon is already a vendor to many libraries and is seeking to enlarge its footprint. Heaven only knows what the publisher of a distinguished journal will do when Amazon takes over the management of OPACs, Apple demands that prices be set within a narrow band, or Google decides to digitize every back issue, citing fair use and the good of the world.
It should be said that many people (I have no idea if this is true of Stross himself), are embracing Stross’s economic argument against DRM because they simply hate any restrictions on end-user options, and any charge that can be laid against DRM is thus welcome. But even a supporter of strong publisher control of the dissemination of content can understand Stross’s economic argument, even as he or she dreams of foolproof DRM.
As I have remarked before, I am in favor of DRM in principle, opposed to it in practice. I favor it because the producer of any work should be able to set the terms for its use; the marketplace is welcome to accept or reject those terms. But my practical nature notes that this is not the world we live in, that producers have little say in how their works are used, and even the mere assertion that producers should have such a right is met with strident opposition. Would I rather be right, or would I rather win? I view matters of copyright as some do the purchase of stock: you buy what you think is going up. When it comes to DRM, it’s time to sell short.
I have long wondered if publishers could create a new e-book ecosystem, with or without DRM, by supporting a new reading device. Let’s imagine a low-cost manufacturer that comes up with a clone of the Kindle Touch and Fire. (The Touch is a dedicated e-book reader, the Fire is a tablet, a poor man’s iPad.) The manufacturer could support an online bookstore for participating publishers, all of which would pay a fee (say, a couple dollars per ISBN per year) to the manufacturer to support the device, its related apps, and the virtual bookstore. All publishers would be welcome to join. This would not in any way prevent publishers from also selling their works to Apple or Google or anywhere else. It would provide a new option in the retail environment. This was the thinking behind the ScholarsCatalog project (aka Academilog), which I researched several years ago and which I would like to restart today.
On the other hand, if publishers had had the foresight to create such a service five years ago, they would not now be in such a pickle.