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All These Calls for Amazon to Drop DRM Are Missing the Point

amazon frownAsk anyone who has been tripped up by the restrictions that some publishers put on their content and they will tell you that DRM is a terrible crime against computer science. The pain we have all experienced in being stung by DRM continues to inspire bloggers to call for its end.

Unfortunately, most bloggers aren’t looking at the DRM situation from the viewpoint of the publishers and distributors. If they had looked at this issue from the inside out then they’d likely realize that one, there’s non-obvious forms of DRM on almost every type of content we can buy, and two, Amazon doesn’t get to decide whether that DRM is present.

There’s a new open letter over on ZDNet that calls for Amazon to drop DRM on audiobooks distributed via Audible:

When Audible was purchased by Amazon Inc. in 2008 most authors and audio book consumers hoped that Amazon would stop Audible’s widely-hated practice of crippling the use of authors' audio books with Digital Rights Management (DRM).

Amazon didn’t.

They’re now one of the last DRM hold-outs.

Violet Blue goes on to argue the many issues caused by DRM, but her article is wrong at its core. Amazon is ultimately not the company which gets to make the decision.

First, Amazon isn’t one of the last to use DRM. Most retailers use it on at least some of the digital content they sell. One problem with these calls to drop DRM is that most of the bloggers don’t look for supporting evidence any further than music. They neglect to consider the apps and movies that can be found in alongside the ebooks and music on a lot of retail sites.

Amazon, for example, uses DRM on the Android apps they sell (the same goes for Apple and probably Google). All of the sites which sell movies use one form of DRM or another.  And depending on how you define DRM, it could be argued that even the mp3s you buy from Amazon, Google, et al are not DRM-free.

DRM is much more prevalent than one might think, and it’s going to stay that way at the insistence of the major publishers/studios/labels – or sometimes even at the insistence of the media conglomerates which own the major publishers/studios/labels.

That detail about ownership is rather important because dropping DRM might have to be made at a level above the folks actually running the content business.  We know this was true at one time for at least Macmillan, and I’d bet it could be true for some of the other major publishers/studios/labels.

Way back in 2006 Tor-Forge Books, a Macmillan imprint, decided to take a positive step towards dropping DRM. They announced that they would sell ebooks via Webscriptions, the ebookstore run by Baen Books. Unfortunately that plan was quickly scuttled at the command of Macmillan’s corporate parent Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH (or so we were told at the time). Funnily enough Tor-Forge did go DRM-free eventually; it just took another 6 years.

Do you really want to get Amazon to drop DRM from ebooks? Then start a campaign to change the minds of the corporate HQs at News Corp (HarperCollins), CBS (S&S), Lagardère (Hachette), Georg von Holtzbrinck (Macmillan), Bertelsmann (Random House), or Pearson (Penguin).

Change the minds of the corporate parents and they can help push the recalcitrant publishers to switch over (assuming the publishers didn’t already want to make this move).

Calling on Amazon to drop DRM, on the other hand, is a waste of a blog post. They don’t have the power to acquiesce to the demand.

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Brian January 13, 2013 um 10:11 pm

To the best of my knowledge there is no choice given to authors/publishers as to whether their audiobooks sold through Audible are DRM’d or not. Is that not correct? There are some audiobooks available other places besides Audible that don’t have DRM, but the Audible version does and I don’t think even self-pub authors using ACX are given a choice.

So while I agree that the publishers are the biggest problem when it comes to DRM in general I’m not sure that Audible isn’t at least somewhat at fault in this instance.

Nate Hoffelder January 13, 2013 um 10:28 pm

Random House seems to think their audiobooks don’t have DRM:

But even of that is wrong I’d still go for convincing the publishers and corporate parents to do something about the issue. They’re the ones that can force the change.

Until that happens we either have to live with Audible DRM or refuse to use it. That’s not the only venue for audiobooks, you know.

TheSFReader January 14, 2013 um 9:46 am

You’re right, most of the effort should be made WRT the publishers.

However, Amazon is NOT exempt of problems on the DRM front. They’ve effectiveley STOPPED showing which ebooks have DRMs on ALL of their Kindle stores except the one. The .CO.UK and .DE, which used to show the "Number of devices : unlimited" flag do not anymore.

That’s for me a clear regression in behaviour, which I won’t let pass easily.

Mike Cane January 14, 2013 um 10:11 am

>>>Amazon, for example, uses DRM on the Android apps they sell (the same goes for Apple

Wow. Apple is selling Android apps now? /snark

Robert Nagle January 14, 2013 um 10:54 am

Nate, believe it or not, I’m in the process of submitting an audiobook to the various services, so these questions are interesting to me.

Audible is a fairly painless to the user, but painful to the publisher. Their contracts practically drive you into exclusivity (reasonable royalties if you enter an exclusive arrangement, ridiculously low royalties if you do not). Yes, they include (and I think require) DRM protection too.

Another option is to go through Iambik, tunecore or even sell it directly through your own website. But the problem is that customers wrongly think that Audible is the only player in town. Nothing will change until customers are comfortable with downloading directly from the publisher’s own site. Instead they go with the well-known and "trusted" brand which is Audible.

Robert Nagle January 14, 2013 um 10:59 am

It’s possible to sell "spoken word" albums on Amazon and itunes which are DRM free. These are typically for album-length works (i.e., less than 70 minutes). Although this doesn’t exonerate Audible, I will admit that having a locked app makes it easier to manage several hours of audio (marking where you left off, etc).

OT: The Librivox app (which you can download on various tablets) is the tops! Wonderful way to listen to public domain works.

Jussi Keinonen January 14, 2013 um 11:25 am

I’m having some problems understanding the fanaticism of the DRM-free movement.

At the core, I believe, are mostly people who would like to send, receive and share files via email and whatever, but "only, like, with my 500 bestest Facebook friends".

Then there are some who haven’t yet understood that this wonderful tool called digital licensing is not owning. This is funny, because they’d like to think of themselves as digital pioneers, but still hang to the "old thinking".

And the compatibility whinos don’t realize that most books are normally read only once. It’s different with the music that you buy, those you can listen to once a year for a longer time. Buy an ebook when you want to read one, is this really too difficult to live with?

And why, in the grown-up digital world, would you expect to be able to share your ebook at all? Why can’t everyone buy their own books, if they really want to read them?

Besides, DRM is constantly getting better. Is there really anyone left having a problem using them?

Xhara January 15, 2013 um 7:38 am

> Besides, DRM is constantly getting better.
> Is there really anyone left having a problem using them?
Yeah, I. It took me 3 tries to connect my pocketbook 360 with the Adobe Digital Editions and 3 hours … with no result although my reader is compatible and I followed the instructions to the letter. In the end I removed the DRM and trasferred the file via Calibre …
Last month I bought a ebook at Kobo – got the usual acm file and an error instead of my bought book. Again … it took me over a week, then kobo sent me my money back (instead of fixing the damned link).

Xhara January 15, 2013 um 7:53 am

Second … sorry I just read your post backwards …
> And why, in the grown-up digital world, would you expect
> to be able to share your ebook at all? Why can’t everyone
> buy their own books, if they really want to read them?
First: There is a social component in it. You tell somebody about a new author you found or an author you really like and she doesn’t know. What do you do? Do you say "Go and buy one for yourself and you will see"? Or do you rather tell her: "Look, this is a good one. Do you wanna borrow it?" In my own circle, the later is the case. Most authors I wouldn’t know by now if not for this kind of persuation. And I bought second and third ones … so no harm done but the opposite.
Second: If I may transfer that boldly to the case of music … If you have guests … do you shut down your hifi and tell them "buy the disc yourself"? Yeah, it’s not really the same but were does it end?
Third: Maybe you are rich enough to be able to buy everything you are interested in. But that is not common and especially not common among our youngsters. If you restrict books and the readability of book to those who are able to read, you will get more and more young adults with no interest in reading and reduced abilities to do it.
It’s simply a matter of culture and education.
Fourth: If I bought it, I am the owner of something. And I should be able to use, destroy, borrow, sell or keep ist. The same thing you do with your clothes etc. pp. DRM limits this. And it has the first effects into the non-digital world. So you can already find printed books with fineprint saying that the reselling and or borrowing of this book is prohibited. WTF?!

Vittu-Pelle October 27, 2013 um 11:10 am

Thank you Xhara for proving Jussi’s point, that the anti-DRM movement (oh which I’m a part of, despite being the opposite of a pirate) are not only in it because of what DRM does to paying costumers blood pressure, but also because "sharing is caring" and other moronic arguments.

Assuming you live in the western world, just as your friends, then the excuse of "poverty" for not wanting to pay for, in this case books, is ridiculous at least, and dishonest and perhaps evil at worst. If you want to recommend the books you have purchased (have you?) to your friends then you’re free to do so, it does not necessarily mean that you actually have to give them their own copy. They can afford to get it themselves, and if they can’t, they can get a job so they in the long run will.

That goes for basically everything else you want, that someone else have created, and which you can access only by giving them something i return for their product or service. But since "information wants to be free", it’s better to let your buddy buy the books so he/she can give you a copy, right? Since you’re poor, right? I see straight through your seemingly ideological statement and you’re not convincing me.

Although, we’re drawing the same conclusion: DRM should be abolished; but that’s not an excuse for piracy itself, and it should be eradicated only because of what it does to paying costumers, the ones who’re not paying no matter what are not part of this discussion anyway.

DavidW January 15, 2013 um 8:34 am

I think you confuse your personal reading habits with everyone’s. Many reread and many purchased their library as ebooks for the express purpose of reading them again. You believe that they should be punished if they switch from a Nook to a Kindle because novels to you are disposable toilet paper.

As for the other point, have you ever considered that maybe people understand digital licensing but find find it ethically wrong even if it is legally right?

Amazon Auto-Rip, Kindle Utility Kit, DRM to be dropped? and more… January 15, 2013 um 9:52 am

[…] piece by Nate Hoffelder (who never seems to be short on an opinion, by the way) tells us that asking Amazon to drop DRM (digital rights managements) is asking the wrong question, and of the wrong people. What does he […]

Cory Doctorow April 17, 2013 um 2:03 am

It’s simply not true that the DRM at Audible is solely at the behest of the publishers. Random House Audio asked Audible to do my audiobooks — including the adaptation of my NYT bestselling YA novel Little Brother — without DRM, and Audible flatly refused. What’s more, there’s no way to sell audiobooks on iTunes except through Audible, which makes Audible’s policy a de facto mandatory DRM in iTunes, too.

Nate Hoffelder April 18, 2013 um 11:44 am

That sentence could have used some work, I’ll admit. I had forgotten that Amazon required DRM on audiobooks and didn’t offer any other options.

But that doesn’t change my main point that it’s the publishers that decide whether DRM goes on the content we buy and not Amazon.

Kjetil Molteberg April 24, 2014 um 12:10 pm

"But that doesn’t change my main point that it’s the publishers that decide whether DRM goes on the content we buy and not Amazon."

Apparently not, as proven by Cory.

I know I’m a year late to the party when writing this,
but as it happens I just bought my first digital audiobook (through Audible),
and was surprised to find that I could not play it on any of my 3 portable devices,
I can not play it on my cell phone, I can not play it on my psp,
I can not play it on my mp3 player and I can not put it on an usb stick and play it in the car.

It also means I will literary loose the books I purchase when audible shuts down their servers (which is going happen sooner or later).

I was searching for DRM free alternatives for audiobooks and ended up here.

Nate Hoffelder April 24, 2014 um 12:40 pm

Yep. When it comes to audiobooks, I am wrong.

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