Round 2: DRM Is Not Totally 100% Evil But Sometimes Gets Close...

Thanks to everyone for the comments and apologies for igniting the whole debate again. I thought I would collect all my responses together and put them out as a post. - My position: personally I think DRM is a pain and try and avoid it as much as possible. Professionally I recognise that as a publisher we are obligated in some instances to use it. Before everyone beats us up too much, can I just point out there aren't many publishers actually selling non-DRM ebooks and actively promoting them, or even embarking on a discussion like this. What I am saying is that I have a lot of sympathy and affinity with the anti-DRM position and strongly support open licences so am not droning out some unthinking policy.

- Andrew Savikas makes a good point when he says a pirated copy is not a lost sale. In a related point Cory Doctorow argues that the viral possibilities of a non-DRM means that it can have more blockbuster potential. I agree with both of these points. However just because a pirated copy does not necessarily equate to a lost sale, it does not mean that it doesn't all the time.

Margins are tight. On big titles agents will ensure advances are calibrated to the max. That means publishers have to hit very high sales targets to get any kind of return. A 5% loss of sales across big titles over a few years will greatly damage publishers ability to publish big books. So even if there are many new readers being added even a relatively low number of book buyers lost could cause a lot of damage. The thing publishers should learn is not to hit the panic button at the first whiff of piracy but to have a more considered response that doesn't alienate everyone involved.

As for Cory's point I think this is true for some works but not all works (as JEB points out). So I agree that having no DRM works exceptionally well for Little Brother (a brilliant book), as indeed it did for NIN and Radiohead. There have now been numerous instances of publishers giving a non-DRM file away, and this leading to a boost in print sales. My argument isn't with the effectiveness of this, but rather with a) there are some authors for whom this will not work as there audience isn't right and b) this isn't really a solid foundation from which is build a range of digital products. As a model I do think this will become more and more prevalent (all good) but also that it has the potential in the long term to undermine that which it currently supports.

- Regarding paper and DRM: I think this is a good metaphor for the expectations we have when we own a book. We expect a degree of control, but we don't expect to be able to do absolutely anything. Paper/digital isn't what it is about, rather I am saying that there should be some consistency across how we approach a book and freely acknowledge that present DRM is not doing this.

- A common argument here is that DRM doesn't work as it doesn't stop piracy therefore whats the point, lets get read of it. This is like saying the police neither deter nor solve all crimes so whats the point, lets get rid of them. Just because something is not absolutely effective, does not mean it is absolutely ineffective.

- Sean Cranbury calls my final comment "disingenuous". All I can say is that it was not written disingenuously at all. I am trying to strike a balance that favours readers compared to what exists now! This is about saying, well given that we are not in a position to scrap DRM for all our ebooks (technically impossible under existing arrangements) what can we be doing to improve things?

- To the many points about how DRM can make life difficult for ordinary readers, I agree and always have agreed. My reasoning for DRM not being 100% bad is that it can help mitigate risk. However we can all, I think, acknowledge that, bluntly, a lot of existing solutions suck. Cory Doctorow made many interesting points about the difficulties in creating a more humane DRM system to which I don't have an immediate answer. What I can say is that these should not stop us from trying even if it is hard, and I would be happy to get involved with standards bodies to fight for a better consumer experience re DRM. It might be challenging but we should give it a shot anyway - better to have tried and failed etc.

- Gary Gibson (a Pan Mac SF author whose non-DRM ebooks are available on the website) made a brilliant suggestion that some kind of digital escrow account is what we need. I could see this being run by an independent body like the IDPF or the BISG in concert with publishers. Such a project might offer a workaround to those objections that focus on the concentration of DRM in the hands of a few big players and the added cost burden DRM places on digital products by being a non-profit. This would also get round many of the difficult scenarios presented by Cory Doctorow. David Smith's point about a rental model being a good way of getting round this is exactly what I mean when I say we need to be open to new business models. A subscription/library style service could work for everyone.

I realise that saying something positive for DRM is not going to win me any friends (in public at least). Most of the objections to DRM are fair and publishing will no doubt follow a path similar to the record industry. Equally though blanket condemnation of DRM without an acknowledgment that it can play a role in maintaining the lifeblood of content industries is telling only one part of the story. I'm not saying the current IP framework is perfect, just that elements of it are important.

Given that the weight of industry opinion demands DRM for our files, isn't it better to try and make sure that DRM is as inclusive, flexible and consumer oriented as possible, instead of just going with the flow?

Many of the questions here seem to be about what the concept of "ownership" is in the digital age, and these are not fully resolved yet. I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers!