E-Books & DRM for the Simple Man

What are these E-Books?

E-Books, in short for Electronic Books, are digital forms of Books. These were created, so that we all could read books in our personal computers, cellphones, tablet computers, or even dedicated devices like Kindle.

What is this DRM?

DRM, in short for Digital Rights Management, is a technology used by companies producing digital content in the form of music, ebooks, games, software ..etc., to restrict the misuse of the content. For example, you buy a software for your personal computer, but you want to install the same software in your friend’s computer, DRM helps in preventing you from doing it. Because, it is you who has paid and your friend cannot have it for free.

So what is it with pricing and DRM?

In a game situation, it is a all gain or all lose stance for the publisher because, if the game is good, more people want to play it, if it is bad, no one wants to play. The pricing and the DRM has to be perfect for the content creator-cum-publisher to make money. If the game is great and has no DRM, then it can be distributed over the internet and still end up as loss for the publisher.

In a book situation, it is a complex thing. Making it simple, the writer gets a amount of money to cover his bread if he gets a publisher to publish his book. The publisher gets to pay his bills if the retailer could sell more number of books than a threshold level, and finally the retailer gets to feed his family by taking a profit selling all kinds of books. So where does DRM and Pricing come into picture? Pricing comes into picture with the publisher, he has to set the correct price, so that all the three could benefit.

And DRM …

As you can see that it is publisher’s head ache to tune the pricing to sell more number of copies, so one would assume it is his work to set right the DRM as well. But that doesn’t apply to ebooks. The people who actually do it in case of e-books are the retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Flipkart.

Why is that?

It is because a publisher is NOT needed anymore. A publisher was need in the 20th century to get the manual work done, like proofreading, typesetting, sourcing paper, printing and selling. Perhaps a century or two back, there wasn’t any publisher. There were writers and printers, that’s all. It was the writer’s headache to sell his books. Coming back to the 21st century, in the digital era, there is no typesetting, no papers, no printing. The author proofreads and the retailer sells. Now all we have left in digital book scenario is the content creator and the retailer. And retailer decides the pricing, hence the DRM.

To give a real life example, the cost of Hunger Games Part 2 was $6.78 the moment after I bought Part 1 in Amazon, but dropped to $3.75 when I bought a month later. Now Amazon is trying to sell me Part 3 for some $9.45. (sigh) This is how retailers manipulate prices for gains.

Who benefits from this DRM?

Obviously the Writer and the Retailer.

Who is affected by DRM?

You and me. The people who read books.

How?

In order to understand how, first we need to see what a idle digital book could offer us.

To put simply, it offers seamless usage in all things digital. An idle ebook, could be read in any device you choose, can be annotated anywhere you want, can have any number of bookmarks, highlights, notes attached to any place in the book. You could buy a book and your whole family could read it at the same time, instead of waiting for turns. Instead of photocopying pages of your interest, you could take clean printouts with custom typeset and paste in your bedroom walls. You can read one page at home computer, next in phone as you commute and the next perhaps in your school/office tablet. And the possibilities are endless. Content sharing would be intertwined with our lives so much that we wouldn’t really be talking about books as objects as we see it today. Think about it, the entire collection of books in the state library accessible from anywhere by anyone and still be able to use it as his personal book. It is a book lover’s paradise. But mind it, all for a price and not free.

But DRM, in its present state, takes away your liberty to use the book the way you want completely and makes you use it how the retailer tells you to do it. All the fantastic things in the above paragraph will remain a fantasy with DRM. Moving a step down, the DRM that now exists removes whatever liberty that even printed books provided.

Here are the pain points:

  • Sharing: Physical books could easily be shared between family members, friends, co-workers, teachers and students. No longer. Either you will have swap the device itself that contains the book or buy buy separate copies. What we see as a convenience, the writers and publishers seem to see it as a nuisance. They have found a way to stop this sharing and increasing their sales through DRM. What we see as savings, they see it as potential losses. Which means, what the freedom that digital era brought, was usurped by the same digital tech called DRM. Now people cannot share the books they buy even with their kids.
  • Walled gardens: Multiple device sharing being a very important advantage of digital content, retailers are rolling out applications for all major platforms, so that the same book could be shared between multiple devices seamlessly. But the catch is, they will dictate how wee do it. For example, you cannot buy a book to be read from Amazon and read on a device other than one supported by Amazon. Which means, Amazon dictates how I use my book where. If you are going to buy books from multiple retailers, you are going to end up in multiple islands with a character and climate of their own; unlike a physical book which remains the same irrespective of the retailer.
  • Content: Using the content the way we want is one best thing digital technology gives us. You could use the same text in umpteen different ways in umpteen different contexts with very little physical effort. You could quote complete paragraphs effortlessly, print your favourite versus or even make posters of famous quotations typesetting as per your like. But it is all a no go with DRM. No copying content anywhere. One could of course make posters and small passage print outs with a bit of workarounds. But they again are based on the whims and fancies of the retailers. For example Flipkart doesn’t allow you to share more than 140 characters.
  • File Formats: Almost all the weapons of DRM are wielded by the hand called file format. The same book is sold in different formats by each retailer that can only be read by his software or device, which means, you cannot open a Flipkart book in Amazon device. Even in your phone you need to install two different software for books from different retailers and save any notes you make in two different software. All of which makes one wonder, whether technology is making our lives simpler or more complex. The worst of this multiple format nightmare is they cannot be converted from one to another easily bring more pain than ease.

With the above restrictions imposed by the retailers, the e-books actually look like a step back in the technology that a step forward in the life of books. It is not technology that is at fault here, open formats like EPUB exist solely for e-books, which could be used by any retailer. But retailers choose DRM over open standards, and that creates the mess for common people like us.

What does the future hold?

I am unsure how the future will unfold. There has to be a perspective change in the publishing industry for openness to occur and all the benefits of digital books to be harnessed. The view of seeing ebooks just like conventional books and fixing costs per unit sales and restricting their usage has to change. Just like software, books with better features could be sold for different prices, say a open format book would cost a dollar more than a retailer specific format. Provide additional formats, content copying abilities, multiple device support, etc., could be added at an additional cost. And that could create a new dynamics in book pricing. Or may be someone creates a open store where an author could publish his book and is free from all the retailer and DRM mess.

And I am hoping for such a day.

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