A couple of days ago, I was sitting in the offices of a Canadian publisher talking about digital books. I was urging the folks there to get into the business of distributing authors’ work online with no digital rights management whatsoever.

Let me set the stage. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is code that is kludged on to online content, like music, to prevent purchasers from using that content in ways the distributors would rather they didn’t. For example, DRM prevents you from making a copy of a song you’ve purchased from an online music store and passing it on to a friend.

Unfortunately, DRM can also prevent you from taking a song you bought on your home computer and playing it on your work computer, or on a new computer you just picked up but isn’t authorized by the DRM. Or, it can even prevent you from playing it on the machine you bought it through if something goes flakey.

The biggest users of DRM so far have been record companies. They argue it prevents piracy and protects profits. The truth is, it doesn’t do either. It just pisses off consumers and gives pirates something to hack in their spare time.

And, a new study from the University of London, England commissioned by Industry Canada suggests that folks who share music online (via peer-to-peer networks) actually buy more CDs, not fewer. So, the industry apologists will have to look elsewhere to explain their woes.

For the record industry, DRM has been a frustrating, fruitless exercise in trying to control the uncontrollable. It’s a cat and mouse game where the mice (the hackers) are more numerous, more agile and more motivated. As sci-fi author and activist Cory Doctorow says, “DRM is junk science.”

Fortunately, DRM is dying. Universal, one of the big players, has just started selling its tracks on amazon.com as DRM-free MP3 files. On the iTunes Music Store, you can now buy DRM-free tracks from a variety of labels and independents. It’s always been the case that nobody but the recording industry liked DRM, and now even that sluggish beast is getting the message.

And itâe(TM)s a message the book industry needs to learn from. In the past decade there have been dozens of attempts to launch e-books and e-book readers. Many were hampered by device size, high price, lousy titles and bad interfaces. But all were burdened with silly DRM slapped on them by publishers, Microsoft and Adobe âe” which produced reader software dripping with draconian restrictions hardwired into the code that displayed the text.

Why does this matter now? Because in the next few years portable screens will get bright, sharp, simple and small enough that we will start using them for all sorts of daily tasks, much as we use laptops now. See last week’s column on the iPod Touch for one example of such a device.

That means that content we used to carry around in book, binder and paper form will be converted from atoms to bright bits at 200 dots per inch. We need to be certain that, when that happens, we maintain the same consumer rights we enjoy now.

When books become e-books, we must be able to use them, sell them, lend them and give them away just as we do now. DRM, any DRM, will prevent that, or make it so complex that it is sure to frustrate, break and bind consumers in fetters we don’t want or need. DRM is a Trojan horse that can erode rights, right under our noses if we don’t pay attention.

Book publishers, especially Canadian book publishers, have such a great opportunity right now. Few, if any, Canadians hate book publishers. Few, if any of us, think they foist junk collections of short stories on us with only one good tale in the bunch. We don’t think they make obscene profits on the backs of less well known authors.

We don’t think they pump out indistinguishable pulp fiction junk. But, that’s just how many of us think of big record labels (and with good reason). In short, our goodwill is the book publishers’ to lose. Point being, even if they put electronic books for sale DRM-free and in a platform-agnostic form, we have little reason (apart from greed or cheapness) to rip them off. On the other hand, we have every reason to support them.

Look, if you told me I could buy a copy of, say, Bill Clinton’s Giving for $9.99 in a format I could read on my iPod Touch, computer, PDA or cellphone, I’d put down my money. And, if you didn’t gum it up with DRM, I’d respect the purchase, the author’s rights and the need for the publisher to make a profit. Why? Because the publisher treated me like an honest consumer. And, in the end, that’s the best DRM money can buy.

That’s why I was sitting in that office making the case against DRM and encouraging the publisher to take a bold but freeing step away from the stupidity of record companies and e-book reader software companies who think infantilizing consumers wins their hearts and minds.

Will my little entreaty make a difference? Hope so. I want to live in the future. E-books are a part of that. Let’s get on it.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...