Locks on books • 7 March 2012 • The SnowBlog

Locks on books

It's always a problem isn't it? If you lock things up people can't use them. If you don't lock them up people might run off with them. That's why e-books have locks (or DRM), in case readers just share them with each other and kill off the legitimate sales. Of course we can share paper books, and that's not generally considered to be a wicked thing, but then you can't share your book with a million others at once. Although libraries do their best - and are not usually condemned for it. That said, it does seem to me that the DRM on books is protecting us against a theoretical problem and not (yet) a real one. And those book locks come at a considerable price in terms of hassle and complexity. And perhaps more importantly, those locks also keep customers coming back to the same retailer. Amazon might be worried about piracy when they tie their e-books to Kindles and nothing else, but it certainly doesn't hurt customer loyalty either. There's no way to take your library to another platform if you no longer favour Amazon. When it comes to piracy, I always like to go back to the idea of playing music on the radio. You're giving it away for free to millions (billions?) of people and yet the most lucrative music is often the music that is given away (i.e. played on the radio) the most. Music labels beg and cajole radio stations to play their tracks more not less. There's clearly a trade-off: letting the product circulate without too many restrictions builds the market; sales follow. Being too 'grabby' and refusing to let a song ever be played for free would just guarantee that it was too obscure to sell much. But does that thinking carry over into books, when we don't tend to read a book ten times in the way we might listen to a track we like? If you let a customer have a freebie, haven't you blown that sale for good? So perhaps there isn't a strong analogy there but it's certainly true that 'obscurity not piracy' is the current big problem when you're launching a book so might some loosening of the strings be a good thing? O'Reilly do some very loosey-goosey things with their e-books. With a single purchase you get the book in several e-book formats with no DRM (link). In theory you could just e-mail it out to everyone you know. But O'Reilly don't seem to have suffered that fate despite their readership being super tech-savvy about file-sharing, neither do they appear to have been stung by their trusting approach which has been around for a while now. And that lack of hassle and DRM makes O'Reilly books really appealing. You can cut-and-paste from them and even print them out. If you happen to want the book as a mundane, DRM-free PDF that you can read on pretty much anything with a screen it's available. That (so far) seems to be much more of a lure to honest customers wanting a hassle-free life (= sales up) than to rapacious pirates (=sales down). So just as a thought experiment, what do we all think would happen if we took all the locks off e-books and developed a universal format that would work on all readers and in all reader apps? What if we did everything we could to popularise books without fear of piracy and trusted that it would work? The result: an explosion in reading and a boost to sales? Or an implosion in profit as previously law-abiding readers go feral? And are we being short-sighted here: if a big part of the future of publishing is e-books, is it foolish to lock up our books for fear of piracy, which isn't a huge problem yet, while doing very little about the fact that monopolies are developing in the book world (=Amazon) that pose an existential threat to bookshops and traditional publishing? In fact, fear of piracy can play right into Amazon's hands by making it impossible to move your library away from Amazon no matter what happens. I mean, if I wanted to be histrionic about it I could compare it to a protection racket. Amazon protects us from the scary, imaginary pirates in exchange for a cut of everyone's profits. And you can't really opt out if you want your business to thrive. I'm not saying Amazon think in those terms, I'm just saying that however good their intentions, the mechanics of the system would be familiar to any mafioso - even if the only knee-capping is commercial not physical. I hope our fear of book terrorists doesn't mean we voluntarily give up all control of our industry to the people offering to protect us from the bogeyman.


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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