Following the lead of Random House Audio—which removed Digital Rights Management software from most of its audiobooks last year—major audiobooks publishers are either removing DRM restrictions from their audiobook titles or making plans to do so in the near future.
Long a subject of heated debate among copyright holders, consumers and digital professionals, DRM software restricts the ability of consumers to copy legally acquired digital content or transfer it to other devices. The debate over DRM's utility—does it protect copyright and revenue, or actually suppress sales and annoy consumers?—has been centered in the music industry. But after Apple announced plans early this month to remove DRM from the music sold through its iTunes service, the questions around DRM have shifted to the growing popularity of digital downloads of audiobooks.
“We're definitely entering the DRM-free era,” said Rob Wetstone, v-p, label and publisher relations, at eMusic.com, a digital entertainment retailer founded in 1998 that began selling DRM-free titles in 2007. eMusic.com offers more than 5,500 audiobook titles DRM-free. “Audiobooks have trailed behind the music business. Of course [publishers] are testing because it's new for them, and their authors need to be comfortable. But if someone really wants to steal an audiobook, locking up the format isn't going to stop them. Publishers expect the market to move to DRM-free content, and we plan to add much more audiobook content in the coming months.”
Audiobook publishers contacted by PW downplayed the influence of Apple on their DRM decisions and pointed instead to Random House Audio, which has removed DRM from the thousands of titles in its catalogue. While they were quick to note that individual authors can choose to retain DRM on their titles, the publishers contacted by PW were testing DRM-free titles and looking to release many more into the marketplace. Indeed, some suggested DRM and piracy concerns are “a smokescreen” and the least of their problems, emphasizing instead technical issues in downloading large audio files, the importance of getting digital audiobooks into cars—drivers are the biggest audiobook users—and making downloads “dummy proof” for a market that isn't always tech-savvy.
Ana Maria Allessi, v-p, publisher, at HarperAudio, also pointed to RH Audio's tests of DRM-free titles for more than a year. “RH went out first and showed that piracy isn't really a problem,” said Allessi. She said HarperAudio “is just beginning to do DRM-free partnerships. We're somewhere between a test and a full-throttle release.” Harper is offering about 50 DRM-free audiobook titles through eMusic.com. But, Allessi said, while “consumers will appreciate DRM-free titles,” she believes most are more concerned about pricing and selection. “I think [removing DRM] will satisfy our existing customers, but I don't think it will increase the pool of customers.”
At S&S Audio, Chris Lynch, executive v-p, publisher, said S&S is testing about 150 DRM-free audiobook titles through eMusic.com, “to see if we want to expand the number. It's hard in this day and age to tell a consumer, you can't put the title you just downloaded on your wife's iPod.” Lynch also wondered, “Will removing DRM have a negative or a positive impact on sales?” He added, “Removing DRM opens up more retail channels for your titles. So far we've seen no negative impact.”
Lynch pointed to new and smaller audiobooks publishers that emphasize DRM-free titles. “We're looking at what our competitors are doing,” he explained. “All audiobook publishers are looking at this issue, and not because of Apple. We started testing last summer.”
“Aubiobook publishers have been talking about DRM constantly for years,” said Amanda D'Acierno, v-p, publisher, of Random House Audio and Listening Library. Since RH removed DRM from its titles, sales are up, although D'Acierno cautioned against drawing conclusions, noting, “There are also a lot more music players in the market.” She said the RH Audio catalogue offers “thousands” of titles DRM-free (about 10% of its audiobooks still have DRM because of author concerns). “There has been no increase in piracy since we removed DRM, and we watch this very closely,” she said.
D'Acierno also dismissed Apple's influence. “Any audiobook publisher who removes DRM has given it a lot of consideration. Apple's decision has nothing to do with it.” D'Acierno continued, “Consumers don't want DRM. As a publisher, we feel that consumers should be able to move their files from device to device. They should have the ease of use with an audiobook file that they have with a physical book.”