DRM or DRM-Free? That is the question.

Have you ever heard of a burglar getting caught breaking into a house to steal books? We should be so lucky, that the crime of stealing books is, well, on the books.

Well, that’s pretty much what the issue of DRM (Digital Rights Management) is all about. It’s a technical protection mechanism that uses special computer code to stop users from copying or changing an eBook, and is usually applied by retailers who sell them. Publishers and authors insist on it while readers often hate it.

So basically, in order to prevent people from “stealing,” your eBooks are “locked” onto the device you’ve purchased them on. So for example, if you have a Kindle and buy an eBook, you can’t easily copy that file to another Kindle or other devices. Well, let me put it to you this way: You cannot simply copy your eBook from one device to another without jumping through a whole bunch of hoops. This is what DRM does.

Perhaps the main reason why DRM protection is so important is because it helps prevent people from selling them on a pirate download site where potentially thousands more can get books without paying for it, or even worse, illegally sell them. From the point of view of most publishers and authors (including myself), this is uncontroversial: Why should I enable pirates to steal the hundreds of hours of work on the part of the author and the investment I’ve made as a publisher, to rape our income? Publishing is already a risky and not particularly profitable business even without piracy. Who needs the aggravation?

But it’s not quite that simple. The logic follows that when you buy a print book, you can do whatever you want with it; you bought it, you own it. You can loan it, give it away, or even sell it, which by the way is not illegal. It is, of course, considered copyright infringement to make copies of that book and sell it, but for most people who buy and share books, they are not looking to make a buck, they want to read books. As you can see, the argument for and against DRM eBooks is not so cut and dry.

So, the progressive, social justice, let’s-be-accessible part of me is anti-DRM. DRM facilitates the extension of monopoly power on the part of big resellers, Amazon in particular, by corralling your rightfully purchased content in a “walled garden” where you must maintain an account so you can make more purchases. And while I am a huge Kindle fan (having owned them and purchased tons of books from Amazon), I do not subscribe to this way of thinking. Unfortunately, what often happens with DRM is that it penalizes the customer. Many readers like to have access to their digital books on multiple devices, but DRM prevents them from having that kind of access to the book they have purchased. Oh, I forgot to mention that there are different types of DRM applications, so for example, a book you purchased from iTunes will only work on Apple products (even though it is an ePub), because Apple uses a different DRM than Kobo. Yep. And here is where it gets even more complicated.

For example, imagine a reader who owned a Barnes & Noble Nook and bought a lot of eBooks from the Nook store over the course of a year or two. Once the device started to get old and needed an upgrade, the reader decided to purchase a Kindle as a replacement device. Once they get their new Kindle, they will find out that the DRM placed on files purchased for the Nook platform will keep them from being able to put those legitimately purchased eBooks on their new Kindle device. That kind of lock-in does not happen in the print world (my bookshelves don’t care where I bought a book), and this is why DRM is very frustrating to eBook consumers.

So while DRM prevents legitimate users from casually making a copy of their books from one platform to another, it doesn’t really prevent the bad guys from doing so; there’s plenty of software tools and programmers out there who can crack every DRM that’s out there (e.g. movies and music), including the ones for eBooks. So what’s the point?

However, the business part of me remains fearful of copyright infringement, and protecting the rights of both our authors and the press. Unfortunately, there is only one generally accepted DRM technology to do this, and that is Adobe Content Server 4 (ACS4), and the costs are pretty steep: at least $10,000 for the initial license, $1,500 per year, plus a per-book charge of around .25 depending on volume. Really? Don’t think so.

I also checked out the trend of mainstream publishers, who in recent years have begun selling eBooks direct. While only a few small presses have begun doing this, I think it’s inevitable because eBooks have become the norm, with most publishers (both big and small) releasing print and digital editions simultaneously. And since selling direct cuts out the middle man and gives more money back to the authors and the press, I think 2Leaf Press supporters will be more inclined to support our efforts and buy directly from us. Ultimately, piracy is not the problem for most authors, obscurity is.

So what to do about DRM? I decided to sell our books DRM-Free and with any luck, will not have to contact our attorneys every five minutes over copyright infringement issues. This doesn’t mean I will not at some point reconsider a more affordable and reasonable security alternative further down the line that is not nearly as harsh as DRM (digital watermarking comes to mind). But for the most part, I believe in people, and that people who love reading and books will prevail. I support the idea that providing accessibility doesn’t necessarily make you a chump, because distributing digital literature helps the proliferation of independent and unconventional literature. More importantly, I believe that in order to avoid a future in which our devices serve as an apparatus to monitor and control our interaction with digital media, we must fight to retain control of our media and software, within the boundaries of United States and international copyright laws.

So with that, I wish happy reading to all.

Visit 2Leaf Press website and check out our books.

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