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Why the E-book DRM Debate is Like Censorship in China

To those that hold the power people on the periphery ultimately don’t matter.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

To DRM or not to DRM, that is the question. But, as discussed in today’s feature story about BooXtream, there is a third way: digital watermarking, which allows a publisher to track a file back to an individual purchases, should they find the need to do so.

padlock drmYou can argue the merits and disadvantages of DRM till the ends of time. It has shaped up as one of those arguments where it appears “never the twain shall meet.” Each side has it’s own priorities. But what’s perhaps most interesting is that the large mainstream publishers have more-or-less finally given up on the idea that DRM inhibits pirates. And with it, they appeared to have finally taken to heart the idea that the majority of people willing to pirate a book is not likely to be the same consumer who would have bought the book in the first place. Pirates, or those inclined to take this kind of shortcut, are not their core audience.

No, instead at least one publisher, Ursula Mackenzie, chief executive of Little, Brown and Company and president of the UK Publishers Association, admits that:

The central point [of DRM] is that we are in favor of DRM because it inhibits file-sharing between the mainstream readers who are so valuable to us and our authors.”

This appears on its surface to be an awfully hostile comment, at least when read from the perspective of the reader. In essence, it means — we don’t want you, the people who are likely to buy our books and support our business, to begin sharing those books with other people who might otherwise buy our book. We don’t want you, and your generosity of spirit or enthusiasm for our book, to take away a potential sale from us.

Yes, as a reader, it is offensive; but from a business standpoint, it makes some logical sense (though does little to the perception that publishers are often hostile to the needs of readers).

The comment has much in common with China’s own unofficial policies for policing its own publishing industry. Talk to publishers in China and they will admit, at least anecdotally, some tolerance of free-speech, provided it remains on the very fringes of society. The hammer of censorship is guaranteed to come down if and when something threatens to influence the mainstream population or comes into public view.

To those that hold the power people on the periphery ultimately don’t matter. It’s your base, your core audience, that you need to police — and keep in line.

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  1. Posted September 24, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Interesting comparison. When I discuss DRM with French publishers as we hash out the rights for our books, the argument I’ve heard is, “It’s about the authors. We need to protect their work.” I suppose you could also argue the merits and disadvantages of sharing books until the end of time. It seems to me that with ebooks, the concept of convenience enters into the equation, and price point becomes more important. If the price is right and you can get it directly onto your device without any hassle in a matter of minutes, then, well you might just buy it. Perhaps, ebooks do then give publishers an opportunity to be less “hostile to the needs of readers.”

  2. Posted September 24, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    “The central point [of DRM] is that we are in favor of DRM because it inhibits file-sharing between the mainstream readers who are so valuable to us and our authors.”

    Yes, this is offensive to readers, but also betrays a fundamental ignorance about how books have become successful over the years – word of mouth often goes hand-in-hand with sharing. Prohibit that and I bet you decrease word of mouth, not to mention putting yourself in opposition to your readers.

  3. Posted September 25, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    My dear Ed,
    I thought your publication was called “Publishing Perspectives” – but “perspective” is exactly what is missing from this piece.
    How can you possibly compare the niggling about DRM with the physical and psychological violence exerted by the Chinese government against anyone who begs to differ? It’s flabbergasting!
    By hosting a pageant for the Chinese oppressors in 2009, your sponsors in Frankfurt have shown that they neither understand the meaning of “freedom of expression” nor care about them.
    But you have personally always had a very clear “perspective” when it came to the difference between “price” and “value”. Sadly, this has gone missing in this piece.

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