The Internet is the greatest tool ever created for distributing content for free. But most authors cannot afford to take months or years to write great works without the hope of getting paid.
I started Lulu to empower authors, to give them control and help them make money from their works. Authors need to earn a living so that they’re able to keep creating and adding to our collective knowledge. Everything we do at Lulu is intended to help authors find more success — even offering DRM tools. But here’s an example of a critic’s response to that particular decision:
Lulu was the promise of something better. You have failed us all by endorsing DRM and I feel you have betrayed the Open Source community who helped bring support to Lulu early on. DRM on Lulu is an embarrassment and you should be ashamed of taking Lulu down this path. This blog says DRM is the choice for authors, but it is your endorsement for depriving the world of access to knowledge.
More complete arguments against Lulu’s decision to offer DRM tools can be found here and here. Many of these critics feel very strongly about this issue. As it turns out I feel very strongly about this issue too. Not surprisingly, though, my position is the exact opposite of theirs. I have crafted my views over a career of creating customer-focused businesses, so the least I can do is provide a complete and full response.
DRM vs. Padlocks, Software vs. Text
At its simplest, DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is a software tool that restricts text and other files from being viewed or copied without the author’s permission. An author selling a book based on years of accumulated knowledge might use DRM to ensure only paying customers have access.
Historically, the very nature of paper books provided a type of rights management. Making a second copy for a friend required paying the local copy shop several dollars. Distributing it to hundreds of friends required hundreds of dollars in copying costs, plus postage. It was certainly not foolproof DRM but it was, and is, effective at encouraging more than one customer to buy a book.
Now we live in an era of electronic books (eBooks). It is not only possible but downright easy for the first customer of an eBook to “share” it with every other potential customer of that eBook. There is no cost to making an almost infinite number of copies, and trivial costs to distributing them around the world.
DRM is essentially just a lock enabling an author to make it more difficult to distribute an eBook without permission. The simple parallel is to a padlock on a bicycle. Putting a padlock on your bicycle deprives the world of low-cost transportation, but it is your right to protect your property from unauthorized use.
Many of those who have written with concerns about DRM are confusing software with the written word. Software can be either source code or binary. As binaries, software is useful to computers but not useful to those responsible for building reliable systems. Without source code, programmers cannot understand, edit or add to the software. This source vs. binaries feature of software gives software engineers the ability to distribute their software in a format that enables the software engineer to control the use of that software if they choose to do so.
My role in the promotion of Open Source software was not about being against the alternative (binary-only). Open Source is a better way to develop and distribute many types of software. As an advocate for the rights of creators, such as software engineers or authors, I have always believed creators should have the right to choose the distribution format of their works. This includes the right of software engineers, mistakenly or otherwise, to distribute theirs as binary-only.
By comparison, the written word comes in only one format, namely source code. You cannot distribute text without distributing the source code because that is the text itself. So software engineers don’t really need DRM for software in the same way some authors do for text.
I recognize that those who believe all software should be Open Source will not like my position on this, but my position is, and always has been, that the creator of a work gets to set the rules for the use of his work.
Let me be very clear — I don’t think DRM is the right option for all books. I even doubt it will benefit most books. But it’s up to the author to decide. So let me provide examples of strategies you might want to consider.
If distribution is important — perhaps you’re trying to spread an idea, or build a personal brand — then you might want to give your eBook away for free, making DRM unnecessary. Many advertisers invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in videos they distribute on YouTube and other sites at no cost to create a market for their products. Authors can adopt similar market development strategies.
Selling your book without DRM presents the risk of having a significant percentage of your potential market read your work without paying. This strategy might be just fine if your book addresses a large market. If the market is millions of potential readers and 90 percent of them read your book for free, the 10 percent who buy could still represent a large number of sales. This might also be a good approach if you are trying to create a market for your next book. Readers who found your first book for free and liked it are more likely to buy your next one.
But now consider an author with great expertise in a subject of interest only to a very small market, say a few hundred people or companies. This is an example where DRM might be very useful. If 90 percent of a small market chose to read a work for free, the number of sales might be too small to justify writing the book in the first place. If no one is going to pay for the time and effort required to write a book, many useful books for small markets will never be written, reducing the selection of books for those markets.
You can argue that DRM is a good idea or a bad idea, but to argue authors do not have the right to control their work is just not respectful of the huge amounts of expertise and effort authors have to invest to create valuable works.
Lulu’s promise is, and always has been, about empowering ever greater numbers of authors to create ever more works, adding to the store of human knowledge. You don’t have to agree with us, but I thought you should know where we stand.