Don't tell me the truth about DRM

Digital Rights Management was the subject of "The Naked Book" last night, a new Internet radio show and podcast, I have set up with Radio Litopia.

DRM was a pretty tough ask as a topic for the first show, since it is both complex and contentious. Rights management is effectively just a tool that allows the content owner to exercise some control over how a digital file is used by the end purchaser. But for some anti-DRM zealots it is seen as the last act of an ailing oppressor.

Anobii chief executive Matteo Berlucchi has thrown out some new thoughts on the subject recently, calling for publishers to move towards a “universal” e-book: anytime, anywhere, any device. He told our audience that they are aiding and abetting Amazon is building their highly monopolistic walled-garden. He said publishers worries over piracy were “overstated”. How much easier can you make piracy than a Google search and one click, he said, but these were not readers publishers should be fretting about. “You cannot prove that the pirate is a bona fide customer.”

As Kobo‘s director of merchandising Nathan Maharaj explained it is the moms who are important. If DRM is so clunky that it puts them off then you are missing out a huge market. A switch to a cloud-based platform that syncs across devices will mean moms are reading ebooks unaided.

The chat room and twitterverse were pretty receptive to these views,

"Piracy isn't the problem. Invisibility is the problem." Amen!

And yet resistance remains among publishers. As the author Nick Harkaway explained he has all but given up trying to get his publishers to experiment with DRM-free content. "We fence about it," he said. At some point you have to trust the professionals, or you end up doing their jobs for them, he said. He said the need to DRM was driven by fear. "DRM wants to make e-books a discrete object, which it will never be." He said there was a worry that a low-key convenience piracy might emerge if DRM was weakened, but he said there was no evidence for this.

The solution, according to Berlucchi, was some kind of Digital Rights Morality, whereupon the onus is placed on the purchaser to behave appropriately. So-called watermarking, for example, could brand an e-book as belonging to Joe Bloggs and therefore discourage the reader from 'sharing' a file that visibly belongs to them.

I asked Nathan if there was any evidence that DRM-free e-books sold better on Kobo than locked-down files. But he responded that the evidence either way was flimsy at best. He mentioned O'Reilly titles, but trade publishers have previously expressed skepticism at the anti-DRM experience of a publisher that is marketing to a highly technical audience. So, the solution, I suspect is for one of the big trade publishers to do as Berlucchi suggests, some experimenting. Perhaps Pottermore, which has previously intimated that the e-book versions of the Harry Potter books will be DRM-free, will be the necessary guinea pig we all need.  As Rebecca Smart ‏tweeted: "Is piracy a greater enemy than obscurity? How do we work together to get evidence on whether piracy drives sales?"

Fundamentally, from an industry perspective, anything that clips Amazon's wings and allows smaller e-booksellers to get a foothold in the e-book market has to be a good thing.

But I am paraphrasing a much more interesting discussion. You can listen to the full show Digital Rights Moratorium (or How We Learned To Mom-Proof E-Books) here.

We are back in two weeks with more of the same - DRM free.

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