The Internet Ebook Library and DRM

I’m concerned with my new reader-friendly ebook publishing model, thanks to a post I read on William Patry’s blog. That post, titled “First Sale Victory in Verner”, describes a U.S. district court ruling which challenges the enforceability of certain software license agreements. I don’t have the legal knowledge to determine whether or not it will affect my ebook click license agreements, the comment thread of the post does touch on renting, physical copies and the idea of a “sale” in addition to a “license” version being available. Perhaps if there was no physical package involved, the opinion would have been different, though I couldn’t explain why myself. Patry ends his post with a quote from another blog about books and DRM, which reads, “To any publisher who sees the wisdom of DRM: don't.”

I’m worried about this direction, and that worry is coming from somebody who writes and publishes as living, rather than somebody who writes as an adjunct activity to an otherwise profitable career. I’m pointing this out because for many, especially academics and consultants, the writing of books is a necessary credentialing process for their careers that doesn’t usually generate a significant portion of their income. They often stand to win by wider distribution and fame, without regard to payment for the books. Just as there are two worlds of ebook publishers, the “book” crowd and the “get rich quick” crowd, there are two worlds of authors, full-time and part-time, and we don’t always see things the same way.

Back in the 1960’s, libraries in America may have been the largest customer for published books. I’ve spent so much time in libraries myself that it’s surprising I haven’t turned into one, though my taste in literature is solidly fixed in the 1800’s, meaning the books I read are well beyond their term of copyright protection. Even though libraries have lost some of their importance as a market for trade books as they expand into providing other services for their patrons, I don’t know anybody who argues that they shouldn’t be able to buy books from publishers and loan them out as long as they last.

Now fast forward to the Internet Ebook Library, which doesn’t yet exist. The Internet Ebook Library can serve the entire globe, the ebooks it holds don’t wear out after ten or twenty readings, they don’t take days or weeks to reach their patrons through inter-library loans, and they don’t get lost through improper shelving. The ebook library is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Everybody knows about the Internet Ebook Library, just like everybody knows that Google is the place to go to search the web. It’s that successful.

The Internet Ebook Library pays to license a copy of one of my ebooks, which are printable. I’m a publisher who saw the wisdom of DRM, but decided to gamble on the honesty of people and the validity of my license agreement which holds the ebooks nontransferable. The Internet Ebook Library loans out the ebook, the patron hits “print”, the ebook is returned as soon as the print buffer is empty. Maybe five minutes, maybe fifteen minutes, depends on the speed of the printer. If another patron shows up at the Internet Ebook Library seeking the title while it’s out, they get a message like, “Your expected wait is three minutes.” The copy of the ebook sold (if “licensed” is turned into “sold” by the courts) to the Internet Ebook Library represents the only revenue I earn, barring those individuals who actually like reading ebooks on the screen and decide to buy one from me as an act of charity.

As a publisher and as an author, my reaction would be the exact opposite of the blogs quoted above. I would implement restrictive DRM, the kind that marries an ebook to a particular computer and causes the customer all sorts of headaches if the computer crashes or is upgraded. On the other hand, I might just stop publishing ebook versions of any new titles available and stick with killing trees. And if the library doesn’t completely wipe out the market for new copies, a secondary market could easily spring up places like eBay, where nobody other than the seller would know how many copies of a single paid-up ebook were being resold.

My understanding of why copyrights are granted is that they encourage the production of useful and original works. As I’ve commented before on this blog, few of my favorite authors were aristocrats with trust funds, they wrote for a living and couldn’t have produced a body of work without the protection of copyright law. Perhaps I’m conflating the concepts of copyright and licensing, but I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a crazy guy with tinfoil on his head trying to predict the future of ebooks and DRM.


alkalar said...

So, how are your non-DRM sales doing compared to your old DRM model?

Morris Rosenthal said...


In terms of net profit, double the previous $500/month level I was running when selling through Amazon in 2004/2006. But the title mix is a little different, as are the prices.

I've posted several updates on the ebook subject , just have to look through the recent posts.