I’ve just seen a letter sent to an author who has published books under Hachette’s imprints in some territories and with Tor Books and its sister companies in other territories (Tor is part of Macmillan). The letter, signed by Little, Brown U.K. CEO Ursula Mackenzie, explains to the author that Hachette has “acquired exclusive publication rights in our territories from you in good faith,” but warns that in other territories, Tor’s no-DRM policy “will make it difficult for the rights granted to us to be properly protected.” Hachette’s proposed solution: that the author insist Tor use DRM on these titles. “We look forward to hearing what action you propose taking.”
The letter also contains language that will apparently be included in future Hachette imprint contracts, language that would require authors to “ensure that any of his or her licensees of rights in territories not licensed under this agreement” will use DRM.
It’s hard to say what’s more shocking to me: the temerity of Hachette to attempt to dictate terms to its rivals on the use of anti-customer technology, or the evidence-free insistence that DRM has some nexus with improving the commercial fortunes of writers and their publishers. Let’s just say that Hachette has balls the size of Mars if it thinks it can dictate what other publishers do with titles in territories where it has no rights.
The letter goes on to list the titles the author has under contract to them, about 10 of them, and sure enough, all of them are easily found online free of cost and free of DRM with a single search on Google. If they weren’t, it would probably be more cause for concern—imagine being so obscure that no one could be bothered to rip you off! But this is where Hachette’s logic veers off course. “In the context of casual infringement, easy file sharing, and as a part of an overall copyright infringement strategy,” the Hachette letter asserts, “DRM is proving effective.”
I have a series of done-in-one searches that prove that is wrong. The truth is that anyone who wants to avail herself of a Hachette e-book title without paying for it will have no problem doing so. DRM doesn’t stop people who scan books, or retype books. DRM doesn’t stop people who download widely available cracks that can remove all the DRM from an entire e-book collection. And DRM doesn’t stop people who are inclined to download the DRM-free pirate editions. All DRM does is punish legitimate users who had the misfortune to be so honest that they paid for the book, rather than taking it.
Hachette’s letter claims, “Improvements in retailer systems and e-book platforms has led to more flexible DRM which grants the consumer” (this being the odious term the letter uses in place of “the reader”) “greater flexibility in their use of purchased files, such as the ability to share across multiple devices.”
Devices, perhaps. But not across multiple platforms. With the exception of the Kindle Reader app, or the Nook app, available in Apple’s App Store and Google Play, there is no way to read e-books across platforms. And recently, we got a reminder as to what happens when Apple decides that an app is eating into its profits: out it goes. Just last week, Apple stopped bundling the YouTube player with its devices as part of its ongoing war with Google.
In sending its letter, Hachette is missing the most salient characteristic of DRM: it is useless for preventing copying and excellent for preventing competition. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s prohibition on removing DRM without the DRM-vendor’s permission is a license to misappropriate the relationship between publishers and readers. If the Big Six thought Wal-Mart and the other big-box retailers had them over a barrel, just wait until the DRM vendors do to them what they did to the music industry before it abandoned DRM in a Hail Mary attempt to get some competition back into the music retail market.
Let’s recall why Tor dropped DRM in the first place. Tor, a division of Macmillan and the largest SF publisher in the world, had experimented with some DRM-free e-book releases, including giving away over 1,000,000 e-books in the run-up to the launch of Tor.com, and the company saw real, quantifiable growth in sales. What’s more, Tor officials heard over and over again from readers who found DRM getting in the way of the legitimate enjoyment of books for which they’d shelled out good money.
Readers aren’t stupid. When they discover that paying for books results in locked, crippled editions, and downloading for free (simply by typing the title and “free e-book” into Google or Pirate Bay) gets them the same book, minus the offensive restrictions, they start to put two and two together. After all, DRM is not a selling point. There’s no one who’s ever bought a book because it had DRM. No one has ever clicked onto Amazon saying, “I wonder if there’s any way I can buy a book that offers less than the books I’ve been buying all my life.” People buy DRM e-books because they have no choice, or because they don’t care about it, or because they don’t know it’s there. But DRM never leads to a sale.
In its experience, Tor discovered that DRM did not stop anyone from copying, and in fact served only to lock them into the DRM vendors’ platforms. If you sell a million bucks worth of DRM-hobbled e-books on iBooks or Amazon, you create a million dollar switching-cost for your customers if they ever decide to switch to B&N or Kobo or any other new platform that might emerge in this still developing market. These companies are dire competitors, and they use DRM as offensive weapons against one another, suing anyone who makes a tool that might convert DRM-locked files from one platform to run on another.
What’s also interesting about Hachette’s letter is that it comes at a time when the publishing industry has begun to figure this all out. At the London Book Fair in April, Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne spoke about the decision to forgo DRM on Harry Potter e-books. DRM doesn’t stop piracy, he told publishers, and it inhibits readers from using the books they’ve bought on multiple platforms. Exactly. Pottermore even got Amazon to sell DRM-free editions in the Kindle store.
Even Hachette’s U.S. counterparts appear to be at least questioning the effectiveness of DRM. At a Copyright Clearance Center event this past March, Hachette senior v-p for digital Maja Thomas acknowledged that DRM was merely “a speedbump” for would-be pirates, and that removing DRM could benefit publishers by removing platform lock-ins. She noted that when Hachette finally dropped DRM on its audio books, “the business was not destroyed. If anything, it became more robust.”
I know of at least one large agency that has told Hachette that it will not market books to them so long as this policy is in force. And Hachette’s authors should pay attention because, in the end, it is they who will suffer from the effects of DRM. Readers probably won’t remember who published the book that nuked itself due to a DRM misfire or was lost due to a platform switch. But they’ll remember the writer whose book they paid for and to which they lost access. And remember this: the phone is fast becoming an e-reader of choice, and readers usually cycle out phones with their cellular contracts every 12–18 months. This is going to be a hell of a ride.
*Ed: Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred Ursula Mackenzie as Hachette CEO. She is CEO of Little, Brown U.K., which is part of Hachette.