Why e-book DRM will die, and why this will make no difference to Amazon and Apple

Why e-book DRM will die, and why this will make no difference to Amazon and Apple

Summary: DRM on e-books will die. Frightened publishers will see to it that it happens.


The U.S. Department of Justice's decision to investigate Apple and five publishers over alleged collusion in e-book prices and sales models has sparked off an interesting side-debate on the subject of DRM and hardware lock-in.

Regular readers will know that I'm no fan of DRM. That's not because I want to enthusiastically pirate every bit of content in sight, or because I want to encourage others to do the same. No, it's because the whole premise of DRM is based on a lie. DRM is sold to us as a mechanism for controlling piracy.

Without DRM, the argument goes, more people would steal content rather than pay for it, pushing up the price for everyone. The truth is though, DRM has little, if anything, to do with curbing piracy.

In fact, DRM is probably the most ineffective way of combating piracy there is.

Instead, DRM exists primarily as a way to control how consumers access purchased content. A side effect of this is that DRM can be used to lock people into a particular platform or service. And the really insidious thing about this is that people are unaware that they are being locked into a platform or service.

The other day I carried out an impromptu survey of seven people with Kindles on a train on which I was traveling. Of the seven people, six were completely oblivious to any DRM at all (the subject hadn't seemed to entered their consciousness). The one person who was aware of DRM saw it as nothing more with content being tied to a platform. "It's no different to needing a DVD player to be able to watch a DVD, or an Xbox 360 to play an Xbox game," he said.

Consumers, it would appear, are quite happy with the idea of content tied to a particular platform or service. To the masses, it's normal. It's business as usual.

If that's the case, then why will e-book DRM die? Its death will have nothing to do with companies wanting to be more consumer friendly, but instead because publishers fear creating a monopoly and monopsony more than they fear piracy or annoying a minority of their customers.

Author Charles Stross does a good job of explaining the situation in a recent blog post. He outlines how, in a headlong rush to move from an analog product to a digital one, publishers "outsourced the DRM to the e-book resellers" such as Amazon. He goes on to say that by "foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers-and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony."

This, claims Stross, has put the publishers in a dangerous position. While DRM was seen as a way to control the consumer -- and perhaps curb casual piracy -- Amazon, with its "revenue of $48 billion in 2011," a company that has "expressed its intention to 'disrupt' them [the publishers]," is a far bigger threat. DRM is no longer just a mechanism for controlling what users do, it's now being leveraged to control the publishers themselves.

So far we've been talking almost exclusively about Amazon, but Apple also uses DRM on e-books in much the same way that Amazon. In fact, as far as the consumer is concerned, the DRM on Apple's iBooks content is far more limiting, only allowing the book to be read on iOS devices. Compare this to Amazon that has a reader for all the popular platforms, including the PC, Mac, and iOS.

And if Stross is right and Amazon with revenues of $48 billion in 2011 and a desire to disrupt the industry is scaring the publishers, Apple, with its revenues of over $100 billion and profits of almost $26 billion in 2011 - not to mention the company's track record of industry disruptions - must scare them rigid.

This is why DRM on e-books will die. Frightened publishers will make sure it happens.

Problem is, this is too little, too late and will have almost no effect on Amazon and Apple. These companies are far too popular (and, by the majority of customers, well loved) for the removal of DRM to make a difference. Did Apple's removal of DRM from songs on iTunes have much of an impact on either Apple or the competition? No. Did the fact that Amazon came into the MP3 market with DRM-free music right from the start torpedo iTunes? No.

On the whole, consumers don't care about DRM, and removing DRM from e-books won't open up the market in the way that publishers hope it will. What Amazon and Apple has done with Kindle and iBooks respectively was not invent e-books, but refine how the content was consumed. Devices such as the Kindle and iPad make it easy to buy and read e-books, and these benefits are what draw people to these platforms. I said earlier that DRM was probably the most ineffective way of combating piracy. Want to know what one of the best ways to get people to pay for content is? Make it easy to find and purchase, and people will buy it.

Unless the publishers can come up with their own one-stop shop for e-books, make this as easy to use as Amazon or Apple's offering, get this outlet onto devices that people use, and then come up with compelling reasons why people should choose to use it over other outlets (the hard part), nothing will change.

Image credit: Amazon.


Topics: Amazon, Apple, Hardware, Mobility, Security

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  • Ignorant article

    Have you ever tried opening a book from the iBookstore on a laptop or pc? Just go to the media directory that contains the book and double click on what you want to read. All my epub books open JUST FINE. They launch Adobe Digital editions reader on my laptop, just as books from Borders.com bookstore, which I was also able to add to my iTunes book library. Try it before you say it can't be done?
    • Ignorant reader

      Apple has already started changing the ePub standard. Books created with ibbok-author http://www.apple.com/ibooks-author/ will be epub formatted, but will be formatted with proprietary extensions that are not part of the ePub standard. Apple said when they announced the tool that such e-books would only work on an iPad, not a Mac and definitely not a PC.

      So yes, the books you bought through the iBooks store up until the latest release are compatible with standard e-Pub readers, but Apple has promised us that this will soon be changing.
      • Couple of corrections

        1) the first commentator obviously confused general electronic iBooks, which are unlimited, and newly introduced textbooks and the authoring program, which are limited. Adrian only wrote about the new textbooks-type of iBooks, making Apple's system looking limited, while it in general (except for super format like the new textbooks) it is not. General iBooks use ePub format, while the new iBook textbooks use proprietary format (even though based on projected ePub specification);

        2) Apple never claimed their textbooks format using ePub, so it never "changed" format. It has nothing to do with Microsoft's practice with their crooked versions of HTML/Java which were touted as HTML/Java, while there were not.
      • RE: Books

        The article was about books, not enhanced textbooks. The Amazon Kindle format has never been compatible with other readers, while the Apple epub and pdf books were not limited by DRM to an iOS device. I don't think the Apple textbooks are limited by DRM either, they have enhanced code for executing video and applets etc, but that is not DRM, it is an extension to the book format. Whereas the Kindle stuff, even for plain books, require a Kindle reader.

        Even if Apple goes DRM-free, the extensions for iBooks textbooks are not likely to work on other devices - they assume a certain size screen and APIs etc that does not auto-adjust for various size readers.

        If Amazon went DRM-free along with the rest of the industry, people might start picking and choosing where to get their books, not trying to get all of them on the same platform. This could reduce Amazon's leverage for extracting concessions from the publishing industry regarding their lending priviledges, the "Kindle Library", and the Amazon cut from sales. Few people get all their printed books from one source, because they are all readable no matter where you get them, but for digital books you can get into a deadend - like buying the wrong format digital movies.
      • I stand corrected


        iBooks have always been ePub2, although you are correct in that Apple never stated it in so many words regarding the textbooks. Apple's format is, however, based on ePub2 with modifications made to it. This has been covered heavily including a few blog posts here at ZDNet by Ed Bott.

        Apple is touting this format for all authors going forward, not just for the textbook market. Textbooks are the "poster-child" for the new format, but the ibooks-author page makes no such distinction.

        Although I may not have been 100% clear, my point was that the OP should not have been so hard on the author of the blog without checking his facts first. If Apple has anything to say about it the number of books that are effectively DRM'd to the iPad only will increase dramatically with the use of iBooks Author and will not be limited to texts.
  • Monopsony is ...

    ... what Sony get when their movies and music is all sold via Apple ;-) :-(

    I agree completely with the general reasoning of the post ... but wish ZDNET would criticise the global corporations relentlessly ... instead of fawning over versions of Windows and Apple hardware and promoting cloud vendors. The cloud, for all its merit, will be the ultimate vendor lock-in offering if pundits and the public don't wake up: like they did for SOPA and ACTA.

  • All they have to do is put up a site where they can be bought for $5 less

    than amazon sells them for. Seriously ebooks cost next to nothing to distribute. These publishers have catalogs full of books that you see hardcopies for sale at $4.99 to $7.99. All these books could easily be sold for $1.99 as ebooks for a higher profit. $4.99 is where they should target new releases. Screw apple and their no value-add 30% markup with it's craptastic iLockIn.
    Johnny Vegas
    • They won't do that

      Because they (the publishers) will always look at each ebook sale as a loss of a hardcopy sale. Like so many industries, they are blinded to the new business model and treat it as a threat rather than opportunity until well after their fate has been decided by others.
  • Care to elaborate?

    Your quote:

    In fact, DRM is probably the most ineffective way of combating piracy there is.

    What other ways do you have that are more effective? Anything to backup the claims that these techniques are better?
  • Publishers looked too hard at Music

    Publishers, and movie studios too learned the wrong lesson from what happened to the Music Industry. The lesson that they should learn is that you have to give your customers what they want.

    Customers wanted single songs, not albums. They got that my trading songs...admitedly illegally, but the point is that it wasn't about the piracy, it was about getting music the way they wanted, one song at a time. They didn't want to pay $12 to get the one song they wanted, so they pirated.

    If at that moment in time, record companies had offered single songs for $1 (which would now be a lot more) I think you would have seen a lot more sales and a lot less piracy. But, they didn't and a whole culture of piracy arose...music is free.

    Publishers and Movie Studios learned the wrong lesson. They learned "control the IP, or lose the $$$." They have a negative opinion of their customers.

    Take a positive view of your customers and give them what they want at a good price and reap the benefits.
  • RE: Platform lock-in

    I will state up front that I am NOT a typical consumer. Before I switched to using ebooks, I researched them thoroughly. Since ePub was the most widely available from multiple vendors, that's what I chose. I bought a Sony reader and have been quite happy with it. However, the key for me is that every book I purchase immediately has the DRM stripped from it. This is quick and easy using tools found on the Internet. Once the DRM is stripped, I can read the books anywhere I choose, anytime I like. I can even use a program like Calibre to convert it to the .mobi format and read it on a Kindle. Of course, I can also purchase books from Amazon (using Kindle for PC), strip the DRM, and convert to ePub. I can buy books from anywhere and read them anywhere, which I believe is the best of both worlds. I do not make my books available to anyone else - I just remove the DRM so that I can do with them as I wish. I don't have to worry about losing what I've purchased because a company goes under or changes its rules.
    The one publisher which I am boycotting right now is Penguin, because they chose to do something really stupid - they stopped letting libraries purchase and lend ebooks. They even limited existing Penguin library ebook lending so that Kindle books may only be read using a Kindle device, not the Kindle software for PC, MAC, iOS or Android. I emailed them to ask why, and they sent me some PR message about "renegotiating contracts" and trying to make the most for the company and the authors. But it's pure greed.
  • why apple and amazon don't care drm problems

    apple and amazon , they are the two giants of the ebook industry, apple has ibooks drm, and amazon has azw and mobi drm, they have a complete system, and there will have little impact on theirif other book format or library changes, so they don't care if these common drms will disappear. now there are many drm removals on the market, epub drm removal, pdf drm removal, kindle drm removal, but all these can't shake their ebook market.
  • DRM

    I'm new to this whole DRM thing and just getting started but I don't see what the fuss is really. If you have an ebook and really feel you Must use a company that no longer uses DRM, go oldschool and copyright it.

    If you hold a legal copyright and someone snatches your book off Scribd or some other distributor and makes it their own - assuming you catch wind of this - just sue them, or at least threaten to.

    I also saw a question on Lulu from a guy who puts the name of the purchaser on each page of the ebook. Theoretically, no one would try to sell copies of a book with his or her name automatically on every page.

    I'd put something like, "This book is written by So and So so if you are receiving it from anyone else, it is an illegal copy". Not rocket science and you don't even need a program to figure these things out, maybe just to implement that last one.
    Sheila Gazlay