DRM: To Prevent Piracy or Secure Loyalty?

The debate over the pros and cons of Digital Rights Management (DRM)—a layer of security that ties copyrighted works to a user in an effort to prohibit unlawful use or distribution—rambles on into 2018.

What started as a clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 to protect the infringement of copyrighted works such as movies, books, and music, has blossomed into a full-fledged debate on who owns, who can modify, and who can repair the products consumers purchase. These products range from cell phones and cars to children’s toys and ebooks, making it almost certain that everyone has at least one DRM-protected product in their home. The companies who place the DRM on these products control who uses, modifies, and distributes the copyrighted works and products.

A popular example of DRM in children’s toys comes with Sony’s robot dog, Aibo, which was recently re-released in Japan for $1,740 with a monthly subscription fee. Sony’s original robot dog, released in 1999, faced a boycott after the company forced a customer to remove the modifying code that made the dog dance and perform other tricks not found in Sony’s code. The company made sure to “double down” on DRM for the recent release, barring all modifications and ensuring consumer loyalty through subscriptions that allow the dog to operate only on Sony servers. And yes, the new Aibo does dance.

How does this relate to publishing? DRM is commonly used to deter unlawful distribution of an ebook purchased by a consumer. However, the debate circles around if DRMs actually prohibit piracy of an ebook or simply serve to keep the company relevant. Just as Sony uses DRM to stop modifications that enhance their code and ensure customer loyalty through subscriptions, DRMs can prohibit consumers from seeking other companies to support their digital ebooks.

For example: if a customer purchases Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for Amazon’s Kindle, they can only read this ebook for as long as they have an Amazon Kindle account (or the free app). If another company comes out with a newer, better ebook reader, the consumer cannot simply take their lawfully purchased Lincoln in the Bardo and consume it on the new reader, as DRM prevents this file maneuver. Writer Craig Mod aptly states:

The potential power of digital is that it can take the ponderous and isolated nature of physical things and make them light and movable….This is where DRM hurts books most….It artificially imposes the heaviness and isolation of physical books on their digital counterparts, which should be loose, networked objects.

In this instance, DRM locks files not only to prevent redistribution, but to prevent customers from moving on to the next big product down the road. The Kindle user may think twice about investing in the newest ebook reader, as that may involve losing their perfectly curated collection of sci-fi novels or giving up numerous files of crime dramas.

If copyright laws (as many judges have claimed in their copyright rulings, including the Authors Guild v. Google, the lawsuit over Google Books) are in place to promote innovation, DRM should do the same. Lawmakers should turn their ears toward consumers that wish to transfer lawfully purchased files across devices owned by different companies. The law was made to protect copyrighted works, not inhibit lawful consumer access. Infant companies should be able to strive for better readers and better ways to transfer purchasable files without worrying about big players like Amazon crushing them before inception. Innovation over monopolization!

The Internet of Amazon

Does the thought of running out of Tide wake you in cold sweats? Is your greatest fear an afternoon spent hustling to the store for more Quaker Oats? In April of 2014, Amazon introduced something called the Dash, a carrot-sized contraption that allows consumers to zap the barcodes off their empty cereal boxes, or, when that’s too difficult, simply speak the names of needed products into a microphone to order more. But talking or waving a stick around takes energy—energy that may not be available after the depletion of your life-giving cereal bar supplies—so, thankfully, on March 31, 2015, Amazon streamlined theses arduous tasks by introducing the Dash Button. Simply place the Button next to a thing you use a lot of, such as toilet paper or laundry detergent, enable the smartphone app, and connect everything to your wireless network. Now any time your product levels run dangerously low, simply punch the Button and, in two to five days, you can restock your shelf. Get a Dash for everything you buy!

Combine this with the Amazon Echo, Amazon’s answer to Apple’s Siri, released in November of 2014, and life gets even simpler. Think of Echo as the personal assistant you never needed. The cylinder-shaped device plays your awesome music from the speaker at its perforated waist while at the same time updating your calendar, answering your random sports questions, and adding things to your Amazon shopping list. All you have to do is ask, even over the blare of your Saturday Morning Limp Bizkit mix. Echo’s seven microphones—which are always on—promise to detect your normal speaking voice from across the room, no matter who you’re actually talking to, or what you’re saying.

At the same time that Amazon was quietly introducing these products (most are only available to select Prime members), it was also introducing its Home Services. The Home Services program, unveiled on March 30, 2015, provides vetted and ranked contractors for everything from plumbing to tuba lessons, depending on your service area. The providers remain independent of Amazon, except that Amazon requires them to provide upfront pricing or estimates, pay a cut of between 10 and 20 percent of their fees, and provide a money-back guarantee on all services.

You may be wondering how all this relates to publishing. Well, it’s a long shot, but bear with me …

The big news in the publishing world right now is the inability of HarperCollins and Amazon to reach a new contractual agreement. According to Business Insider (a trade magazine that just happens to count Bezos as an investor, and was the only one to break this story), talks aren’t going too smoothly between the two companies. However, it seems HarperCollins may have already begun preparing for this battle. Back in 2013, it began developing its own channels of distribution, such as online storefronts at HarperCollins.com, which sells both print and ebooks, and Narnia.com, which exclusively sells the works of C.S. Lewis. The publisher also made its ebooks available through subscription services such as Oyster and Scribd. At the same time, HarperCollins acquired Harlequin Books, purchased a majority of stock in Thomas Nelson Brasil (a Christian book publisher), and began selling print and ebook bundles.

Here’s the publishing tie-in: If Amazon is able to integrate itself into consumer lives to the degree it seems to be going for, the channels through which consumers purchase products not offered by Amazon may become increasingly sparse. When desire and effort are removed from the consumer experience, then what will drive consumers to physically engage with their internet devices (or feet) in order to search out and buy products not offered by Amazon? Shopping might become so quaint and old-fashioned that merchants like HarperCollins, relying on the consumer to come to them, will seem passé. If Amazon is successful, publishers (and any other producers) may have no choice but to work with it, and Amazon will have final say in all negotiations. Amazon’s endeavor into the “Internet of Things” (as the networking of appliances in your home is called) speaks of a larger threat. It suggests a company—a book seller in our case—on the edge of becoming a true monopoly, and that’s a scary thought. As a small publisher, we need to be able to keep our options open—it’s the only way we survive.