Monday, January 5, 2015

eBook Piracy: Can You Say “Yo Ho Ho?”

Kindle Direct Publishing gives writers the option to apply DRM – or not – when they upload a book. Smashwords doesn’t support DRM at all.

Australia’s “The Age” reported on November 17 that “A submission to block websites that host or link to copyright infringing movies and TV shows could be before cabinet by Christmas.“ This followed a similar move in September by London police. (See October report in IR.)

Once again, the focus is on music and movies rather than eBooks. But why? Aren’t high-value books just as attractive to pirates? Let’s take a look at Digital Rights Management (DRM) from the POV of the author or publisher.

For starters, many eBooks are intentionally left unprotected by their creators. Kindle Direct Publishing gives writers the option to apply DRM – or not – when they upload a book. Smashwords doesn’t support DRM at all.

“DRM-free” advocates often focus on “interoperability.” They want to freely move eBooks between devices, without technical hassles. For example, after my iPhone was stolen last year, I was unable to read my Kindle-for-iPhone books on my Kindle device without a lot a bother.

Others argue that DRM should be left to the device manufacturer rather than the author, publisher or bookseller. Apple in particular intentionally makes it difficult for users to get content off its devices. Some object that this forces consumers to “upgrade” operating systems, and even buy new devices, more frequently. But the point is that iBooks effectively applies DRM to eBooks, even when the author or publisher does not.

Another factor is the fact that most eBooks command low prices, averaging perhaps $6. How much time are pirates willing to invest to steal a $6 product? And with the recent advent of “all you can eat” eBook subscription programs (Kindle Unlimited, Oyster, Scribd) they are falling even lower.

In July of 2014, indie publishing advocate Hugh Howey published an “Author Earnings Report” that concluded “Indie titles without DRM sell twice as many copies each, on average, as those with DRM” as shown below:

Yet another influence – especially among undiscovered writers – is that many want readers more than money. Some are actually pleased to see pirated copies of their stories circulating the Internet. For career writers, it’s a different story… but we face the same dilemma when deciding whether to use DRM.
Last but not least, there is no bulletproof way to prevent piracy. Recall that Stephen King’s eBook novella Riding the Bullet was hacked within 48 hours of publication, in spite of the fact that it employed the best DRM available in the year 2000. While DRM has improved since then, the reality remains that a determined hacker can almost always unlock a song, movie or book, even now in 2014.

My own eBook, “” (co-authored with self-publishing guru Dan Poynter) was released without DRM in 1999. I was worried about piracy, but Dan wasn’t. “Consider pirated copies as free advertising for the next edition,” he quipped… and he was right. Today, nearly all of Poynter’s books are available from Smashwords, sans DRM, and his revenues are still impressive.

So what we see today is a convergence of factors that mitigate against DRM. Just the same, it can be unsettling for those who write for a living to discover their work pirated. And it’s happening with greater frequency in the book world every day. Just last month, The Bookseller ran a report headlined ‘At least 20’ French publishers in Scribd piracy tussle.’

As is often the case in today’s world, the ultimate solution will probably involve new business models more than new technologies. As distasteful as it may sound, it’s possible that authors and publishers may eventually be forced, like newspapers and Web sites, to rely on advertising income in lieu of revenues from sales.

The current popularity of “all you can eat” eBook subscription programs, while threatening the per-unit earnings of authors and publishers, might eventually swell to the extent that writers can earn a living wage from eBooks that are downloaded at little cost to consumers. But at current levels of payouts from eBooksellers, the term “living wage” might be better expressed as “minimum wage.”

What’s ahead? IR predicts that law enforcement agencies worldwide will take an increasingly aggressive stand against sites that distribute pirated content, rather than the pirates themselves, who upload torrents of copyrighted material without permission. That isn’t really fair, but since it’s virtually impossible to prevent pirates from jailbreaking movies, music and eBooks, it may be the only option. That is, until someone devises a way for everyday people to share what they like whenever they like… and yet somehow fairly compensate those of us who create what consumers want to share.

And by the way: do we need to point out that IR has conveniently placed widgets on this page for you to share this report with fellow readers and writers, free of charge? We’ll thank you if you do – and so will our advertisers.

Danny O. Snow is the editor of Self-Publishers Monthly, a worldwide e-Book series for indie writers and those who follow the fast-paced world of self-publishing. Follow him on Twitter (@SelfPubMonthly) or at “The Self-Publishing Boom” community page on Facebook. 

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Kindle Direct Publishing gives writers the option to apply DRM – or not – when they upload a book. Smashwords doesn’t support DRM at all.

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