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Mark Coker Headshot

Protect eBooks Or Trust Customers To Do The Right Thing?

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Print books are like zombies. They don't die easily.

There's a dark side to these zombies of the printed page. We never throw them out, so they're difficult to kill.

We pass them on to friends who read them, and then they pass them on again. We sell them, or trade them in for credits at a used book store, or we donate them to a library and they change hands again and again and again.

Some might argue all this sharing of the printed book is a form of piracy. Each time the book is shared, the author and the publisher who invested so much effort to create the book don't see a penny. It's not really piracy, though it can have the same effect by depriving chronically under-compensated authors and publishers of financial sustenance.

Don't get me wrong. I love print books. My wife and I collect them. Every Friday, we do date night at our local Barnes & Noble. Books form narrow hallways in our house. I'd say I'm cursed by print books except it's really more of a blessing, as anyone sharing our affliction will tell you.

I don't want print books and book stores to go away.

From an early age, we're taught to respect books. We know and love them as receptacles of knowledge and entertainment, and as artifacts and souvenirs. They're expressions of personal identity and personal desire. It's quite amazing, really, how books can envelop our lives like, uhm... mossy green zombie goo.

This brings me to the main point of this post. There's a big debate in e-book publishing circles about DRM, also known as digital rights management. DRM is a copy protection scheme designed to prevent e-book piracy. It tries to prevent customers from copying and re-distributing e-books (most e-books are licensed like software -- you're not allowed to share them with friends or resell them).

Most large publishers refuse to sell their e-books without DRM-protection. One small publisher emailed me the other month, fearing that without copy protection, readers would pirate his e-books and soon, millions of unpaid copies would be in the hands of ungrateful readers.

I, along with a minority of book people, think DRM is counterproductive to the future of book publishing. We shouldn't erect obstacles that prevent customers from enjoying books. DRM treats law abiding customers like criminals by limiting their ability to enjoy their book their way. DRM adds unnecessary complexity and expense to books.

If you examine the demographics of book buyers (and e-book buyers too), they tend to skew toward middle aged consumers, and mostly women. These folks aren't likely to want to peruse illegal file sharing sites and risk virus infection just to save a few bucks.

Publishers should trust customers. Most people are honest and well-intentioned. Let's educate them about their social obligation to financially support the author, publisher and retailer who helped bring them this book. Let's offer them a low cost, affordable product. If publishers do the right thing for their customers, and some customers still decide to go the piracy route, publishers should realize these folks were never going to buy their book anyway.

DRM is ticking time bomb for customers and publishers. Most people who purchase e-books today don't even know their books are cursed by DRM. The rude awakening may come months or years down the line when customers try to move their books to a different e-reading device.

I'm reminded of a meeting I attended nearly 20 years ago between a reporter for InfoWorld magazine and John McAfee, the epynomous founder of McAfee, which was then a small anti-virus company with annual revenues of about $10 million. He explained how he believed his company was like an apple tree, and the apples it produced were his software products. He offered his software as "shareware," meaning customers were able to download the software for free, without copy protection. People were encouraged to share it with friends and co-workers. Users were legally obligated to pay for it on the honor system. He said if someone stole his apples, he didn't care, he'd grow more. Today, the company he founded is worth billions of dollars and his ideas -- once thought insane -- have forever shaped the future of digital content distribution.

I don't advocate publishers follow a carbon copy of McAfee's shareware model. Yet I do suspect his story offers valuable lessons about the benefits, both intentional and unintentional, of trusting your customers to do the right thing.

Comment below. Should publishers eliminate DRM and trust their customers?

Around the Web

Will E-Book Anti-Piracy Technology Hurt Readers? : NPR

Why The eBook Industry Needs More Piracy | Techdirt

Publishers Getting The Wrong Message Over eBook Piracy | Techdirt

Hard data on ebook piracy versus sales -- slides from O'Reilly ...