Why DRM eBooks Aren’t That Big of a Deal

If you listen to Cory Doctorow, ebooks wrapped in DRM are an evil plot by Lemurians and the Gnomes of Zurich to plant blasting caps about the ankles of western civilization. He may be right. But what I want to assert — and what seems so uncouth to say on the open culture Internet, especially coming from the mouth of a fiction writer — is that it doesn’t matter very much. DRM, in books, isn’t a big deal.

Let’s start with one vision of how people interact with books. This is the romantic vision, where a book is a loved member of the family, an intellectual artifact to be turned to again and again, passed down to children and grandchildren, and eventually bequeathed to a library for the enjoyment of our eventual flying-car-piloting, vat-grown-beef-eating descendants. This vision sees books as icons, as treasures. It doesn’t limit this to the physical objects. With an ebook, there is no physical book, just electric stuff floating in physical stuff and made manifest via screen technology stuff. But what matters to the romantic vision is the idea of the book, and that idea is bound to no particular medium.

But most people — or, at least, most people so far as they relate to most of the books they read — aren’t romantics. Instead, they adopt what might be called a pragmatic vision of readership. These are the people who buy the latest Alex Cross novel, read it on the airplane, the subway, and for a couple of hours before bed, finish it in a week, and then either stick the paperback on a shelf, sell it to a used bookstore, or just throw it away. Their interest is not in perpetual ownership of artifacts but in consuming — and hopefully enjoying — a story. That done, they move on to another James Patterson or John Grisham or Dan Brown. While I don’t have the numbers to support this, I’d comfortably bet that far more books are bought in furtherance of the pragmatic vision than the romantic.

And here’s where we get back to those evil Lemurians and Gnomes. Pragmatic folks have no real reason to care about DRM. So long as the Lincoln Rhyme thriller they bought on Sunday lasts on their reading device to last until they finish it on Thursday, then their entire library of old ebooks of suspense yarns and spaceship adventures can vanish in an epic corporate dustup and they simply have no reason to care. Why? Because the pragmatic readers have gotten everything out of each book they want to get at the moment they turn that last page.

In fact, the whole of the romantic crusade against DRM is based upon the (likely mistaken) assumption that most of us want to do things with our books after we’ve finished reading them. We want to lend them to friends or we want to share them with our children. No matter what, say the romantics, we most assuredly do not want to lose them.

But the romantics are wrong, and the reason they’re wrong is that they’re still thinking of books as moderately expensive physical objects instead of the fleeting packets of entertainment most of them are. To see how strange this view is, think for a moment not about books but DVDs. You don’t see campaigns on the Internet calling the Netflix empire evil because its customers don’t get to keep the third disc of the first season of The Office they watched over the weekend. We don’t think of TV shows or movies that way because services like Netflix have brought the marginal cost of consuming them happily close to zero. We don’t complain that we can’t give that DVD away to a friend, because we give away recommendation instead — and let our friend check out The Office themselves, on their own Netflix account. With ebooks driving the cost of books down, giving away a recommendation begins to look every much like giving away a book.

The romantics don’t see it this way. With books, they overvalue ownership because books are special. Books are creamy paper between beautiful covers, with a magical smell and that exquisite texture of print under the pad of the thumb. So not owning them sounds abhorrent, even downright uncivilized.

And I agree with them. For some books. I love my set of first editions of James Ellroy. I cherish my hundred year old, leather bound complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. I’ll read both to my daughter at bedtime, when she’s old enough and if my wife lets me. But most books, to me, aren’t James Ellroy and they aren’t Edgar Allan Poe. Most books I consume are just that: consumed, enjoyed, and set aside or thrown out or sold. For those books, I needn’t worry about the plug being pulled by the DRM provider and I needn’t worry about being locked into a particular device. I can read each in the moment and then move onto the next.

Digital rights managed ebooks will eventually fade away, just as digital rights managed music has. But the fact that we must deal with DRM today shouldn’t be the enormous, hyperbolic, tinfoil hat concern it has become. Rather, we should see DRM as the sugar making the move to ebooks more palatable for publishers and authors, and the move to ebooks as a phenomenal, revolutionary development that will lower the costs of reading, bring more authors to more readers, and grow the field of books like nothing since the printing press. DRM, simply put, just isn’t that big of a deal.