First, let me say that I'm looking at all of this as both a writer and a reader. As a reader, I want to be able to buy a book once and read it forever; I don't want technical problems to threaten my library; and I don't want to have to jump through hoops just to read something I've already paid for. As a writer, one who has made a few decent sales (including one non-fiction book) and who hopes eventually to make a living from writing books--something that's currently very difficult, but not impossible--I want to be sure that there's a way for me to sell my books and that whatever structure is in place to get me paid, it works well enough that I can afford to devote a lot of time and energy to writing those books.
From a reader's perspective, traditional DRM doesn't seem important. The only major advantage for the reader is that maybe if writers are getting paid properly, there will be more good books out there--but from the reader's perspective, that probably doesn't seem very pressing. This post suggests an additional advantage DRM could offer readers.
Of course there are hardware manufacturers and publishers and especially electronic retailers involved here, too, but their concerns all have to do with getting the writer's work to the reader, so let's concentrate on just the readers and the writers for now.
In general, the biggest argument against DRM seems to be that it provides positive things for the seller but only negative things to the buyer. Here's a DRM proposal that actually helps the buyer, while taking away some of the biggest nuisances. I'm sure I'm not the first one to come up with it. It's account-based DRM.
What I mean by "account-based" is that when a person buys a book, that person gets a permanent license to read that book on any eReader device they own, from a smart phone to a dedicated eReader to, who knows, their wide-screen TV with a little black box attachment. Computers might or might not be included; that would be mainly a technical issue.
This "account-based" idea is different from what's usually talked about when people talk about eReader DRM, which is "device-based." That is, much of the thinking about DRM has been that when I buy a book, I get to read it on the particular device I bought it for and nowhere else.
With account-based DRM, each device would be registered to a particular person, and one person could have multiple devices. The books the person buys would be stored on the electronic merchant's servers, so that the devices don't have to keep the books in memory, and any book I've already bought can immediately be downloaded to any device I own, or all of the devices I own. Here are the advantages over device-based DRM:
- If my eReader gets lost, stolen, broken, or upgraded, I immediately have all of my books available on my replacement reader. This is an improvement on both physical books and on eBooks that are freely copiable once purchased: I always have a free backup available of my entire library, with no effort required on my part.
- If I like to read on multiple devices, there's no barrier: I can immediately download and read the same book on as many devices as I own
- There's no danger of me losing my library because of problems with my reader (although of course we have to be able to have confidence in the retailer)
- If I sell a device, resetting the account on the device means I'm not selling all my books, too. These devices would have to be built so that changing the account on the device would erase or lock all of the books that were bought on another account.
And of course DRM would only apply to books that aren't in the public domain: the complete works of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and the biography of Ben Franklin and the Tao Te Ching (in older translations) could be made freely available to everyone at no charge.
There's also no reason account-based DRM can't exist alongside shareware-style books, books that can be downloaded for free and that readers can pay for if they want to contribute.
And not every book has to be handled by the same kind of DRM. For instance, one commenter pointed out that technical computer books are often most useful to read directly on a computer. If account-based DRM couldn't be reliably set up on computers, that might suggest that those kinds of books would need a different model; I'm sure there are other examples. Yet for the great majority of books, account-based DRM could work very well.
Obviously this approach isn't perfect: no approach to this very complicated and multi-sided problem is. Any kind of DRM can be hacked, for instance, but it's worth noting that people are much more likely to pass around things they can easily copy themselves than to retrieve hacked versions of things. We see this with software, where many consumers are willing to borrow a friend's installation CD but aren't willing to download hacked software from a pirate site (while other users will happily used hacked software).
And there's potential for readers getting around the DRM in other ways, for instance two friends always buying books in one's name and having both their eReaders registered to that person. Of course, if they ever terminate this arrangement, one of them loses every book they've bought. And so on. Yet compared to no DRM at all, the potential for abuse is very small.
There's even a further step that might not be workable, but that's very tantalizing: transferrable, account-based DRM. With such a system, every eReader would need to be able to check in regularly with the network, perhaps every time it opened a DRM-enabled book, or perhaps just every time they connected for another purpose, like to download a new book. In compensation for this pain in the neck, readers would be able to transfer ownership of eBooks, so that you could loan or give a friend a book you've read in exactly the same way you can with a physical book. If I'm giving you a book, the check-ins with the network are necessary to ensure that book is removed from my eReaders when it's transferred over to yours; otherwise I could just "give" the book away and yet keep it on my eReader, which is no DRM at all.
What might be ideal is to offer most books as either transferrable or not, and the buyer would get to choose which kind of DRM they preferred. If the book were not bought as transferrable, then the eReaders wouldn't have to get "permission" from the network to view the book, ever. If the buyer wanted to be able to transfer the book, then they could opt into the network check process and have the right to loan, give away, or perhaps even sell their used eBook.
All of this assumes a certain eBook retailing structure and certain kinds of hardware and software--all of which would be pretty easy to adopt, especially at this early stage. Account-based DRM offers much more flexibility than device-based DRM and offers more benefits to the reader than it does nuisances. And unlike no-DRM solutions, it provides a clear and workable path for writers to get paid along the lines of paper books, which means writers can afford to devote more time and energy to writing good books, which then benefits the readers.
In fact, a sound enough DRM system could ensure that writers get paid more for books while readers pay less--even while publishers and electronic retailers are getting their fair share. The real revolution in electronic books has less to do with convenience and markets than it does with simple economics. When the costs of printing, shipping, and returning paper books vanish, the economics of bookselling, which has been a tricky business for decades now, become much simpler, fairer, cheaper, and more lucrative to everyone involved. The only people who lose out are paper mills, printers, and logging companies, and honestly, there will always be buggy whip makers going out of business as new technologies move forward. But now I'm just preaching the glories of life in the information age, which is a topic most of us have settled our minds on long ago.