Steal This E-Book?

(Photo: Drathus)

Digital rights management, or DRM, is a set of technologies used to control piracy. An example is the “Fairplay” system that Apple used until recently on most songs sold in its iTunes store. Fairplay was a set of digital locks that blocked certain uses – for example, a song could be played only on up to five authorized computers. As you might imagine, DRM has been controversial, at least among some people who want to make uses of content they’ve purchased – like making a back-up copy, or copying small portions of a work for fair use purposes. Music DRM once involved the installation – without users’ knowledge — of a particularly malicious bit of software that modified, and sometimes broke, the operating systems of customers’ computers.  That strategy imploded amidst government investigations, class-action lawsuits, and a storm of terrible publicity. In contrast, e-book DRM has been nowhere near as controversial, or ineffective. Still, the fact remains that many DRM-haters exist.

Given this, the question is occasionally raised whether DRM prevents enough piracy to make it worthwhile for a content distributor to annoy some of its customers.  The dominant view is that without DRM, e-books are liable to be distributed for free over file sharing networks and this will lead in turn to reduced author and publisher profits and falling production of books. But some suggest that DRM makes little difference, and publishers would do well to get rid of it. Those who can afford to buy books, songs, films, etc., don’t pirate them. Those who pirate aren’t otherwise going to buy.

So which view is right? We now have an interesting bit of evidence on that point. It comes from Tor Books, a science fiction and fantasy publisher based in Britain, but with a substantial U.S. presence.  Tor announced in April 2012, just over a year ago, that it was removing DRM from its e-books.  This was a big deal in the world of DRM-haters. Now, one year later, Tor has announced that the experiment had largely been successful – that is, Tor sees little evidence of increased piracy of their e-books following the removal of DRM — and that the publisher will be keeping its e-books DRM-free. The significance of this experiment is a little unclear—sci-fi readers, Internet geeks, and DRM-haters are three groups that overlap more than a little—but nonetheless, it is an interesting move for a fairly large publisher. In Tor’s words

For our particular readership, we felt it was an essential and fair move. The genre community is close-knit, with a huge on-line presence, and with publishers, authors and fans having closer communication than perhaps some other areas of publishing do. Having been in direct contact with our readers, we were aware of how frustrated many of them were by DRM. Our authors had also expressed concerns at the restrictions imposed by the copyright coding applied to their ebooks. When both authors and readers are talking from the same page, it makes sense for the publishers to sit up, listen and take note—and we did!

Take note of something Tor has said here – the sci-fi genre community is “close-knit”, at least relative to the broader community of book readers. This is important, because a relatively small community with members that communicate with one another is more likely to follow anti-piracy norms  — that is, informal rules against piracy — than is a bigger, more diffuse community. So if Tor gives its readers freedom, but asks them to respect authors’ interests, its readers are more likely to obey – at least if Tor and its authors remain in readers’ good graces.

When we made the announcement there was an immediate reaction from the media. The Guardian explained how ‘Tor rips up the rulebook on digital rights management’ and the BBC featured a long article with arguments from both sides, drawing links with the music industry’s experience of the transition and highlighting that “the key difference with the music business is that the book trade can see what mistakes the record labels made and avoid them.”

If you’re going to get rid of DRM, you might as well enjoy some good press. And Tor has. 

But the most heartening reaction for us was from the readers and authors who were thrilled that we’d listened and actually done something about a key issue that was so close to their hearts. They almost broke Twitter and Facebook with their enthusiastic responses. Gary Gibson, author of The Thousand Emperors tweeted: “Best news I’ve heard all day.” Jay Kristoff, author of Stormdancer, called it “a visionary and dramatic step . . . a victory for consumers, and a red-letter day in the history of publishing.”

China Miéville called the decision “a game changer” and long-time anti-DRM author and blogger Cory Doctorow praised the decision on both the Guardian Technology Blog and boing boing, the blog he co-edits: “I think that this might be the watershed for e-book DRM, the turning point that marks the moment at which all e-books end up DRM-free. It’s a good day.”

And Charles Stross, author of the Merchant Princes series, recently said “I’m happy to see that Tor have gone DRM-free with their e-book editions. DRM doesn’t impede pirates, but it subjects honest customers to a monopoly tightly controlled by the owners of the DRM software, reducing readers’ freedom and hampering competition.”

We had readers contact us directly explaining how “DRM is anti-customer” and how pleased they were by this “forward thinking step.”

The move has been a hugely positive one for us, it’s helped establish Tor and Tor UK as an imprint that listens to its readers and authors when they approach us with a mutual concern—and for that we’ve gained an amazing amount of support and loyalty from the community. And a year on we’re still pleased that we took this step with the imprint and continue to publish all of Tor UK’s titles DRM-free.

Well, whether DRM impedes pirates or not is precisely the relevant question. Tor says they haven’t noticed any increase in piracy of their e-books following the removal of DRM. They are, however, cagey about how they know this.  Probably it’s a combination of their sales projections being met, and also not seeing increased traffic in their books on notorious filesharing sites.  As a rough-and-ready measure of piracy, that’s probably pretty good, although by no means definitive. The bottom line is that a lot more data is needed.  Tor hasn’t experienced an apparent increase in piracy – would the same be true for a general-interest publisher? For a children’s book publisher? For a college textbook publisher? And what about other forms of media that are currently subject to DRM? Tor’s experience is a useful first step. Are there any other companies out there who currently use DRM but are willing to remove it and see what happens?


I think the more interesting, and important question is not whether DRM impedes piracy, which I believe it does to a degree, but whether they increase sell / profit, which is a more complicated issue.


I think you should have stressed more what the publishers usually want to accomplish with DRM. Stross' quote touches on this: "DRM doesn’t impede pirates, but it subjects honest customers to a monopoly tightly controlled by the owners of the DRM software, reducing readers’ freedom and hampering competition."

The publishers have probably gotten the message by now that pirates crack DRM very, very quickly. If their tech people know this, why keep DRM anywhere? Why inconvenience any customers at all?

Answer: DRM is not about piracy. It's about controlling how paying customers consume the books (or music, or movies, or games) that they buy. Keeping an e-book reader reading exclusively on the Kindle is not about preventing piracy, it's about increasing sales by Amazon.


This is extremely important. DRM is how the readers are not the publishers customers anymore, but suddenly Amazon or Apples customer. If publishers want to have a future they need to kick DRM and fight for the customers ability to use books they buy across platforms. Right now this is possible, but a bit of a hassle.


I always remember a chart from Microsoft that I saw about 20 years ago. It was a sales and piracy graph. According to the graph, piracy reduced their sales of Windows by a ton. However, the graph also showed that piracy kept their prices lower than what they wanted to charge for the software. So, piracy created a "positive externality" to "legal customers". Or, like I said to the presenter, some kids in China (it was all about Chinese copyright practices) are saving me some money!!!

Not sure if I buy the normative argument about a small community - sci-fi genre readers - to be more likely to follow anti-piracy rules. Small communities do create their own set of acceptable norms and behaviors; what is cool, what is right, what is wrong. The question here is how this community - sci-fi readers - actually feels about piracy.

I have the gut feeling that they would actually be more likely to find piracy acceptable than the general public. Moreover, the general public of e-books might actually less tech savvy and unable to get pirate books easily. I find very hard to imagine my wife looking for a pirate copy of her beloved Shopalholic (no idea how to spell it) series - she can barely get i-Tunes to work!

It would be interesting to see another genre publisher doing the same, like a young readers print. If DRM-free popular teen series does not lead to more illegal copying, nothing will...



I find very hard to imagine my wife looking for a pirate copy of her beloved Shopalholic (no idea how to spell it) series – she can barely get i-Tunes to work!

In fact, she may find it easier to find a pirate copy. I can't put it any better than The Oatmeal did, so here's the relevant comic:


I'm not sure that applies to ebooks, but the general idea is undoubtedly correct. I can get all the movies I want as soon as they're out on DVD, all the music I want as soon as it's released (sometimes even sooner), and all the ebooks I want for $0. Let's say $10 a month if I needed a VPN. It would have to pay at least ten times that if I went the legal route, and some things would still be impossible to get.


I have an issue with this sentence: "So if Tor gives its readers freedom, but asks them to respect authors’ interests, its readers are more likely to obey.."

DRM-free works because getting the book legally is easy. For most people it's much easier to pay a reasonable rate to download the book the "right way" than to go find it illegally. In this case, DRM just makes customers angry when they can't easily sync a book from ereader to tablet to phone, etc.

DRM supportes have framed this as a respect/obey situation, but it's not. Louie CK proved with his experiment that people would much rather pay for an easy to use solution than go out and pirate.

I think in general that people would much rather pay directly to authors/publishers than pay to get locked into "ecosystems" like Kindle or iBooks, whose walled gardens are protected by DRM.


Mmm, I don't know, I find googling the name of the book I want to pirate followed by mobi or epub to be much easier than having to go through logins and credit card payments. But that's just me.


Baen Books, an American publisher also in the SF/Fantasy field has been running an experiment with a free e-library since 2000. For a time, CD-ROMs were included with new hardcovers, containing multiple books from that author's back-catalog. The origins and piracy philosphy of the library are presented by the instigator, Eric Flint.

Baen has never made news for getting rid of DRM, because they've never had it. ( They did make news within the genre community, when they finally got ebooks on Amazon (still DRM free), which actually forced some books to be taken off the free library, and, IIRC, raised the standard price for their e-editions.

Ryan N

There's a counterpoint to this bit: "Take note of something Tor has said here – the sci-fi genre community is “close-knit”, at least relative to the broader community of book readers. This is important, because a relatively small community with members that communicate with one another is more likely to follow anti-piracy norms – that is, informal rules against piracy — than is a bigger, more diffuse community. So if Tor gives its readers freedom, but asks them to respect authors’ interests, its readers are more likely to obey – at least if Tor and its authors remain in readers’ good graces."

The sci-fi genre reading community also has more members who know where on the internet they can pirate things than the larger set of all e-book readers. So I would imagine this basically counteracts its close-knit-ness.


Sounds like a good move to me. DRM is irritating and to an extent locks people into specific devices. It is trivial to remove DRM from purchased or library loaned books already. So the few who want to post ebooks to pirate sites already do. If no DRM was the default, most readers would still purchase ebooks. I expect there would be more loaning, like there is with physical books but so what? In most cases loans don't prevent a purchase, they simply result in reading that would otherwise not occur. In some cases, a loaned book leads to commitment to a new author and subsequent sales. Witness the proliferation of free ebook offers through services like bookbub - I have noticed that many of the offers are parts of series or the output of prolific authors who want to entice new readers.


Another thing to keep in mind with Tor is that they sell there ebooks for less than the paperback version. There are a lot of books out there where the ebook is more expensive than the paperback. When you see that you know that you're getting ripped off: you're paying more for something that costs less to produce. I don't think this model would work as well for publishers that make it clear they want to rip off their customers.


The point as far as the publisher is concerned is whether it affected sales - who cares about "piracy" (that's what shipping insurance is for).

A lot of the peer-to-peer trading is either people wanting to flip through the book before buying the dead-tree of it, or people who already have the dead tree and just want to read it on their phone, rather than lugging a log around with them.

The flip side of this is that DRM doesn't actually work, can't work, and definitely shouldn't work.

It involves asking your customer's computers to ignore the owner of the computer and do what some random publisher wants. It's clearly morally wrong (note: saying that the alternative is free-for-all copying is a false dichotomy), technically infeasible, and it's hard to see why anyone would hand over cash for it, especially since the items are non-essential.

As far as what the customer wants, it's clear that non-drm is winning in the music industry and book industry (the drm players aren't getting return business once people find a non-drm store). The movie industry is holding out, but those guys have always been crazy and self-destructive.



It's a strange coincidence that you write on this topic just after I've been stung by e-book DRM. (Bought a book on my girlfriend's kindle, she bought me my own kindle; can't transfer the book across - very annoying)

It reminds me of this fascinating and amusing story of software piracy:


DRM assumes that most people are dishonest. If this was so most Western societies would implode. Imagine - most people are shop lifters. Security couldn't cope. By the way I'm not saying non-Western societies are dishonest, just that the incentives are different.

I'm pretty typical of most people. always seems to fall in the middle of surveys etc, and I don't buy DRM protected products. Can't be bothered with it so subscribe to a pay to view and watch that. Mind you I'm an old fart so I'm under no pressure to appear hip or up to date.


Neil Gaiman actually came out in favor of piracy a while back. He released his book, "American Gods" for free on the publisher's website. Sales of the book increased.

As he says, if you think about your favorite author, the one who you pre-order the books for, wait in line to get a signature, follow them on Twitter or Facebook...the first time you read one of their books, you probably didn't pay for it. You probably borrowed it from a friend, or a library.


While they all wail about piracy in foreign countries, most sellers would prefer to keep prices high in their biggest markets than figure out how to sell to and at what price to sell to the millions of non-native English speakers who want to practice their English by reading and don't have western credit cards or other things that western stores assume everyone has.

Textbooks are widely pirated. Copy shops have long been important parts of the college ecosystem. I understand than many third world universities use western textbooks which few students can afford to (or do) pay for.

Anthony Tsang

Until I read this posting, I had no idea DRM is an uninvited guest with my downloads from iTune. Actually I don't mind. I have nothing to fear. Rather, I find highly suspected hackers around me in coffee shops in Hong Kong far more irritating to say the least.

Judge Mental

I hate this subject because a) dealing with DRM is a pain in the butt and b) my friends and family give me an extremely hard time over what they perceive as my "goody two-shoes" mentality. Some get overtly angry with me when I won't use my technical expertise to help them circumvent copy protection. I will *never* lecture someone about piracy, just don't ask me to do it. I will gladly help you work thru DRM issues to lend a book, but please don't ask me to make an illegal copy.

Contrary to the experience of most people here, it is has been my experience that most people don't see book (or music) piracy as wrong in the least. I don't think most people are dishonest, but for whatever reason, they seem to view piracy in the same light as going 1 mile over the speed limit.


I don't understand why anyone would think piracy is "wrong."

Don Sakers

I'm wondering why you decided that Tor is "based in Britain"? All my life (as a professional science fiction writer and book reviewer) Tor has been located in New York City.

I'm very much afraid that when I read this, I stopped giving any credibility to other facts cited in your article. Perhaps you make a good argument, or perhaps everything you say is suspect...I just don't have the time to investigate every "fact" you cite.