Is publishing looking at a DRM-free future?

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First aired on As It Happens (26/4/12)

For many, one of the most vexing aspects of buying e-books is that you're locked into buying those books from whatever vendor supports the device you have. That's because books sold by publishers are digitally locked to work on only one brand of e-book reader. It's called digital rights management, or DRM. Many say this is unfair. And now at least one publisher is listening. Earlier this week, Tor, the world's largest publisher of science-fiction novels, announced that, beginning this summer, all of its books will be DRM-free. Canadian Cory Doctorow, a long-time advocate against DRM, stopped by As It Happens to explain why this announcement is such a big deal for book lovers.

Why is Doctorow anti-DRM? First, he argues that copying a work is nearly impossible to prohibit. "All computers do all day long is copying," he explained to Carol Off. "It's like trying to find a way to make water less wet." Those who are really keen to pirate books will do so and have many high- and low-tech options available to them to make it happen.

Second, DRM locks consumers into purchasing habits they might not have engaged in otherwise. For example, when you buy a book from Amazon to read on your Kindle, you can't transfer that book to your iPad or to your Kobo. You have to read it on your Kindle. "Imagine if every time you bought a book at Indigo you had a requirement that you had to buy the matching bookcase from IKEA, and if you wanted to buy the book somewhere else, you have to buy another bookcase and maybe another lightbulb and a different chair and put it in a different room," Doctorow said. But the most aggravating thing about this set-up, for Doctorow, is that it's supposedly being done for the "benefit of writers and publishers," a claim Doctorow says is "crazy."

Doctorow believes DRM developed as it did because when e-books first arrived on the scene, publishers had a choice to make: either start examining prices or examining digital copyright. They chose the latter (and this eventually led to the U.S. Department of Justice filing an antitrust lawsuit against five major American publishers earlier this year), largely because at the time, the accessing and sharing of digital files wasn't understood by a lot of people. In the decade or so since, that's changed dramatically. Now, more and more consumers are getting music, television, movies and, now, books, digitally. Which means publishers need to re-examine their practices, policies and pricing when it come to e-books.

Which brings us to Tor. Tor is a subsidiary of one of the publishing giants named in the antitrust suit, Macmillan. According to Doctorow, it was only a matter of time before a major publishing house went DRM-free. He believed that the first to do so would be seen as "the most progressive and best e-book retailer and e-book wholesaler in the world." This is important for attracting new business, from both readers wanting to buy the works and from writers wanting to publish with them. More and more opportunities to get books out there in the hands of readers require the files to be DRM-free. And writers want their books in the hands of readers. With legal action against publishers mounting and pressure from writers and readers, it's only a matter of time before more publishers make announcements like Tor.

This would make anti-DRM activists like Cory Doctorow very happy.

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