Tor Books drops DRM

Tor Books, the largest science fiction publisher in the world, just announced that it will be removing digital rights management — DRM — from its ebooks.

“Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time,” said president and publisher Tom Doherty in the announcement. “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”

For example, if you start reading a book on your computer, you can’t finish reading it on your Kindle or iPad. And if you’re blind or sight-impaired, you might not be able to have your device read the book out loud to you. And when you’re done reading it, you can’t give it to your mother.

Now, a single printed copy of a book often goes through several hands — you read it, your spouse reads it, your best friend reads it, your mom reads it, and then you donate it to the library and there’s a book sale and someone buys it and a couple more people read it, and they have a tag sale, and yet another person picks it  up.  And a library can loan out the same book dozens — even over a hundred times.

Of course, copyright holders had a beef with libraries, as well. Imagine it — women’s clubs and philanthropists getting together and raising money for the purpose of creating facilities where anyone can come in and read books for free! Any number of books! And if a book wasn’t available at one particular library, they could request it through interlibrary loan.

George Piternick (then Professor Emeritus, School of Librarianship, at the University of British Columbia) and Samuel Rothstein (then founding director of the School of Librarianship, University of British Columbia), summarized the point of the view of the copyright holders: “1. The author’s proprietary rights in their own creations are being unfairly or illegally infringed upon by the libraries (chiefly public) which lend these books freely. 2. The effects of such infringements are so large as to deprive the authors of their livelihoods or at least significantly reduce the sums they would otherwise realize as royalties from private purchase of their books.” (See Public Lending Right: A History of the Idea.)

My public library is just five minutes away — and the closest bookstore is half an hour away. Back when I had free time — before all this hypergrid stuff — I used to print out my Amazon recommendations, walk over to the library, and order all those books through interlibrary loan. The books would begin arriving the next day. It was great! The only books I’d buy were those by my favorite authors, books I would read over and over again, and could be guaranteed to lift up my mood each time. Of course, with all the library reading I was doing, my list of favorite authors kept expanding, and I barely have any room in my house now for anything else.

It’s not just book publishers worrying about free alternatives. Theater chains were convinced that folks would stop going to the movies when they could get the same stuff at home, for free, on their television sets. Then on their VCRs. Then online. The fact that cinema is still around — and continuing to make more and more money — doesn’t seem to be ameliorating these worries at all.

The same issues come up with the music industry — why buy an album when you can listen to it for free, on the radio? And then you can tape it off the air, and create mix tapes for your friends.

And, despite the mix tapes, and, now, the illegal downloads, the IFPI’s annual Recording Industry In Numbers report shows that digital revenue grew by 8% last year — compared to 5.6% in 2010 — for a new high of $5.3 billion in sales.

In fact, sales are continuing to grow despite the fact that iTunes and Amazon both sell DRM-free music. The old saying was, you could only sell one copy of a digital product — after that, your customers would just copy it for each other. But, in practice, it’s more convenient for customers to just pay the 99 cents and download the song legally than to find a friend to beg a copy off of — or risk viruses and trojans while hunting for a usable copy on the illegal download sites.

It turns out that DRM doesn’t stop the hackers. Whether you’re trying to lock down movies, music, books or other types of digital content — such as virtual clothing or hair — dedicated hackers have a wide array of tool at their disposal to crack the protections quickly and easily.

The only people who can’t crack those protections quickly and easily are the legitimate, money-paying customers. They just want to pay a reasonable amount of money and get a useful product or service. And they get annoyed when the illegal, hacked alternative is better than the legitimate one — with DRM in place, they can’t save a personal backup or use the same digital product in multiple locations. With the illegal download, they can do both.

By insisting on DRM, content creators are making life more difficult for their paying customers while simultaneously making the illegal alternative more attractive. That’s not a good business strategy.

And that’s why the big media industries are moving away from it.

It doesn’t mean that they’re giving up on fighting piracy. Dropping DRM is, in fact, a weapon against piracy — it significantly reduces the demand for pirated products. Another way to lower demand is to offer the digital content for free through legal channels — through Hulu or Crackle or their own sites.

The media companies are also working with foreign governments, especially China, to shut down illegal file sharing sites, and the authorities are going after big international distributors like MegaUpload and MegaVideo.

Today, in the virtual landscape, the one major beneficiary of DRM is Second Life. Hackers can easily steal any content they want, but legitimate, paying customers can’t take the content they’ve bought and paid for to other grids.

It’s a parallel situation to that of ebook readers. If you buy a Sony reader, and ebooks formatted for the platform, then you can’t easily switch to another device — if you’re a typical customer, switching would entail finding and learning how to use DRM cracking software, and converting your entire book library to a new format. That’s a giant hassle. But the Sony reader’s DRM system does nothing to reduce the number of pirated copies of the books floating around the filesharing sites — for the hackers, cracking DMR is no hassle at all. So the DRM offers no actual benefits to the book publishers, except for the slim illusion of security, while locking honest, paying customers into their Sony reader devices.

I do have to make one distinction, however. Once content is available on other grids, it is easier for hackers to get into the scripts attached to the objects. However, OpenSim offers a solution here — server-side scripting, known as modules. These are scripts that run on the server hosting a particular region or regions. If you’re a Web expert, this is kind of like running server-side PHP scripts instead of client-side Javascript. Today, some OpenSim products already take advantage of this, including the PayPal and OMC payment systems, where you don’t want the scripts to be visible to anyone — especially to the hackers.

Maria Korolov