What Cory Doctorow taught me about DRM
Cory Doctorow is one of my nominations for Hero of the Internet. He’s an author, activist, journalist, and blogger – he’s co-editor of Boing Boing, one of the earliest blogs – and savage opponent of DRM (Digital Rights Management). He famously formulated Doctorow’s First Law: “Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you, and won’t give you a key, they’re not doing it for your benefit.”
When I interviewed him recently for the Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast we talked about how that whole DRM is working out for the publishing industry.
Not so well, it turns out.
When you think about DRM, you probably think of it in the context of ebooks, a technical tool to stop unauthorised sharing and to protect your own and your authors’ revenues.
But in fact DRM is ubiquitous: since pretty much everything these days contains a computer, from cars to fridges to cat litter trays (seriously), everything can potentially be subject to DRM. And if you’re a manufacturer, it makes all kinds of sense to protect your commercial investment by applying DRM, not least because it’s illegal for anyone to try to circumvent it.
‘It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to have commercial preferences that are at odds with the interests of owners of products. Your auto company would really prefer that you only get your stuff fixed by its authorised mechanics because then it can charge more to mechanics to join its authorised mechanics programme. But historically, those commercial preferences were not enforceable as a matter of law. You had to entice people to do the things that the manufacturer wanted you to do rather than force them to. The laws that protect DRM… make it a crime to tamper with or remove DRM even if you’re doing it for a legal purpose. Even if the thing that you’re doing is otherwise completely allowed, if you have to remove the DRM, it’s not allowed. This has been an opportunity for companies to convert their commercial preferences to legal rights.’
And, as he points out:
‘Amazon has lots of commercial preferences about how you use your ebooks.’
As well as being ubiquitous, however, DRM, certainly on ebooks, is next to useless for its stated purpose: as fast as tech companies create new DRM technologies, bored college kids find ways to get round them.
‘It’s not really an anti-piracy technology. What it is is an anti-competition technology.’
If DRM were truly a tool serving copyright holders, you’d expect the benefits to accrue primarily to authors, argues Doctorow, then to publishers, then finally to the platforms on which they’re sold. It’s pretty clear that the effect has been almost entirely to the benefit of the platforms. And as the platforms get bigger stronger and it gets harder for new entrants to compete with the established user base and increasingly onerous regulatory system under which they operate, the options for creators and publishers become ever fewer. Which means the established platforms can pretty much name their terms.
That’s not really what we thought DRM was all about when we first talked about protecting our authors’ copyrights.
So what can publishers do to counter the downsides of DRM?
1) We can educate ourselves on the range of different rights options out there …
… particularly through the Creative Commons framework, which may serve many authors better than traditional copyright, and allow them access to a wider distribution network. (This is the basis of the Open Access movement, of course.) We’ve traditionally seen copyright protection as part of our sworn duty to authors, as well as a way of protecting our own commercial interests, but that assumption has allowed tech platforms to put a lock on our content for which we don’t hold the key.
2) We can get involved in lobbying for better international regulation …
… leading the debate about what genuinely benefits rights holders as opposed to what benefits big tech companies.
3) We can focus on rewarding legitimate readers rather than treating them as criminals
By making our ebooks available at a reasonable price on as wide a range of sites as possible, by enabling the user rights that do exist (lending, allowing them to open a book they’ve purchased on another device, etc), maybe even encouraging direct sales with bonuses such as sneak peeks of new works or exclusive author interviews for signed-up members.
4) We can take punt on new players
How many promising book startups have failed over the last 10 years because so few publishers were willing to risk their content on an untested platform? If we want a richer, more diverse, more competitive market to benefit ourselves, our authors and our readers, we need to start taking a few risks.
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com.