Doctorow on the Dangers Posed by Ebook DRM Dictators

In Digital by Roger Tagholm

Cory Doctorow

Citing the Amazon-Hachette dispute, Cory Doctorow addressed the Writing in the Digital Age conference with an impassioned called to fight ebook DRM.

By Roger Tagholm

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the bait in a “trap” of global laws that give platform companies – Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, Barnes & Noble – “the power to usurp the relationship between publishers and their customers,” said the writer, blogger, digital commentator and ‘copyright activist’ Cory Doctorow in a powerful keynote address at last week’s third Writing in a Digital Age conference in London, organised by the Literary Consultancy.

He likens it to a lock which, rather than protecting our content, is the root of something darker.  “Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you, and won’t give you the key, that lock is not for your benefit,” he said.  Explaining how he comes to hold this view, he gave a brief rundown of the history of DRM.

“In 1996, the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation [WIPO] passed the WIPO Copyright Treaty that specified that it must be illegal to remove DRM.  This passed into laws, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US and the European Community Copyright Directive [ECCD] in Europe, which say that removing DRM is always a crime –unless you’re the company that put it there.

Writing in a digital age“Effectively, it’s a law that says if you buy books from Amazon, you have to buy the bookcase, chair, lamp and lightbulb from there too. And only Amazon can release customers from this arrangement. Even though they’re your books, whose copyrights you hold, whose production you paid for.”

It’s a situation that has put chains around the major publishers, he believes. Referencing the current dispute between Hachette and Amazon, he notes that Hachette has had “the most uncompromising stance on DRM of all the major publishers. Every Hachette ebook ever sold through Amazon has been locked with Amazon’s DRM. Now, Hachette can go out and team up with all the other digital companies all at once, but for Hachette’s most loyal, most buying, hardest reading customers, Hachette is saying if you want to keep buying our books in digital form, you have to throw away all those dozens or hundreds or thousands of books you’ve bought to follow us to Kobo, to follow us to Barnes & Noble, to follow us to Google Play, to follow us to Apple.  

“Or you have to maintain two parallel sets of reading infrastructure, two different libraries you search, two different apps that you use, two different rooms effectively in your digital life where your books live…”

He imagines what might have happened if Hachette had not used DRM. Then they could “ship a custom version of Calibre or another ebook reformatting app…and they could offer discounts on their titles with Waterstones, or WHSmith or Google. And they could say: ‘For as long as Amazon is screwing with us, our books are half-price everywhere else – and here’s a tool to liberate yourself from the Amazon jail so you can take your books with you to a less abusive retailer’.”

Instead, Hachette’s use of DRM has shackled the publisher, he believes, has in fact done more harm to the publisher than it has to any pirate. It is impossible to beat the latter. “There aren’t enough lawyer hours in the universe to find all those sites and threaten them until they take all the books down.”  But – and here’s the killer, he believes – if Hachette were to break Amazon’s DRM, it would be easy for the retailer to sue Hachette for breaking the ECCD prohibition on DRM circumvention “and Amazon would turn them into a crater”.

Doctorow posited a succinct DRM catch-22. “The more successful you are in the digital world, the worse this problem gets: every book you sell with DRM adds to the sunk cost that DRM companies can use to ‘sink’ you.”

Then he widened his scope to talk about what he sees as the real dangers of DRM to people’s liberty. “From the perspective of a publisher, the biggest risk presented by DRM is that it hands control over your business to a company like Google, Adobe or Amazon. But from the perspective of the rest of the world, the biggest risk presented by DRM is that it compromises the very security of the Internet.” How so? “Because the prohibition on removing DRM is also a prohibition on telling people things that would be useful for removing DRM. 

“In a networked age, any law that prohibits telling people about crucial flaws in the technology they rely on is incompatible with security or liberty. And now the ebook publishers are petitioning the World Wide Web Consortium to standardize DRM for text sent over the Web – which would be a truly radical expansion of the constellation of devices whose defects are legally protected secrets.”

It was heady stuff, almost heading towards Oliver Stone territory. “Every dictator from Syria’s Assad to Russia’s Putin to Thailand’s Junta has used the rubric of copyright to suppress evidence of humanitarian crises and atrocities. As Chekhov taught us, a gun on the mantelpiece in Act One must go off by Act Three.”

He concluded: “The way you make people free in the information age is with transparent, robust technology. It shouldn’t even need saying, but if your artistic business model only works when there’s easy censorship and total surveillance, your business model sucks. I hope you agree – and I hope you’ll help me fight it.”

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).