DRM Debate Misses Important Point — the Goal is Author Success

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.

Author Choice

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.

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  1. I think you’re missing an important point here by presenting this as a question of whether authors get paid or not. The real question is whether readers, who DO pay for the product, own what they paid for or not. DRM says “no.” I prefer to say “yes.” The author should and can be paid either way; that was never a point of debate. You suggest there’s no middle ground between “DRM and paid” and “no DRM and gratis”; on the contrary, the middle ground between those two has been the normal situation for all books before now.

    There’s not much hope that you and DRM opponents will comprehend each others’ positions as long as you insist that it’s about whether authors get paid. It’s also unfortunate that you apparently think DRM actually works. You won’t be taken seriously as long as you cling to that.

  2. Thank you, Bob, for your very well stated position. I especially appreciate the several examples to illustrate different author choice scenarios. I feel I now understand the issues to consider, as an author, much more clearly.


  3. I have been selling PDFs for years without DRM. In fact, in the RPG community, DRM is pretty much the kiss of death, because it prevents players from using the PDF the way they need to. Having a computer at the game table is not practical. So people cut and paste and print info from their files for use. And I am FINE with that, because if they can use the material, they will come back and buy more.

    And yes, I have found some of my products on bit torrent sites. But I don’t consider these “lost sales.” Most of these people would not have bought the product anyway. I’ve found educating buyers on why piracy is bad for the hobby does more to reduce piracy than DRM.

  4. Hi Mr. Young,
    This is from John Cowart, the guy who wrote you suggesting that your employees take their grandmothers to work every once in a while to see if the ladies could buy a Lulu book without coaching.

    I’m glad that your company offers the DRM option. I’m in the process of adding an e-book format for the 22 print books I already have listed on Lulu.

    In a way, I look on this process as no different than when a library buys one of my print books; the initial purchasers pay me, then allows anyone to read the book they bought.

    For the past 35 years I have worked as a free-lance writer and for the past five years I have published through Lulu Press. I like your company much better than the traditional publishers I’ve worked with in the past. With them, I often found I spent more effort collecting my money than I did writing the material in the first place!

    Yet, I understand that many people can not afford to buy books. To help these folks out, the sidebar on my own storefront (http://stores.lulu.com/bluefish tells readers that if anyone honestly can not afford to buy one of my books and tells me, then I will e-mail them a pdf copy without cost.

    Hardly anyone takes me up on this.

    That may mean that readers scrape together the money needed to buy—or that my books aren’t worth giving away free. I like to think it’s the first option.

    Anyhow, I really like the services your company offers.


  5. Bob

    “The real question is whether readers…”

    Thanks to everyone who has posted a comment on this topic as it is an interesting debate. But let’s not kid ourselves – it is a debate. The facts are not in. Whether or not DRM contributes to more books being written is an open question that will not be resolved for many years, if ever.

    Meantime it is not up to me or Lulu to tell our authors whether or not DRM tools will help or hurt their books sales. That is up to the author and will vary from book to book and market to market.

    Your feedback is helping our authors better understand this issue.

    Cheers, Bob.

  6. Colin Baker

    I am in the process of publishing a weekly e-magazine. I am looking at lulu today as a possible alternative to publishing on my own site. The big question in my mind is to do with my need for DRM on selected magazine issues. I see that there are possibilities.
    I will therefore investigate further.

  7. DRM and draconian enforcement policies have just about killed the traditional music business. As a lifelong professional musician, everyone I know in the music scene except the major labels thinks it’s a bad, bad idea. It’s a PR disaster, because people expect to be able to do anything they want with books they purchase. The same people who download the most music online also buy the most CDs. They just want a free preview before they purchase. It is counterproductive to penalize our biggest fans.

    And the dirty little secret of DRM is that it’s a technical impossibility to implement DRM in any form with transmitting the encryption key to the user’s computer—meaning that any reasonably tech-savvy consumer can break any DRM scheme with a little bit-sleuthing. It remains to be seen what Lulu’s policy will be toward those who hack its DRM scheme. Are you going to drag them into court, or have them imprisoned under laws based on the new WIPO treaty?

    Making breaking copy-protection illegal will simply alienate consumers, just as it has in the music business. And requiring authors who do not need or want DRM to pay an extra fee for ‘hosting charges’ is just plain unfair. Let the authors who want to stigmatize their work with DRM pay for the extra cost of its implementation.

    We happen to be one of the publishers who, like many musicians nowadays, distributes music and books for free to promote our work and act as free advertising for our other services. This business model works very well in an age of essentially free copying made possible by computers. The old business model of scarcity is dead. Let it go! If someone really wants to publish a premium product for a limited audience, there are plenty of vanity presses, including Lulu, that will happily print you a limited-edition hardcover book.

  8. tim

    Very well said there, David.

    There is an excellent paper linked to on Boing Boing about the fools gold that is DRM…


  9. Wonderful post David. Thanks for the hard work and effort to pull-off a thoughtful article.

  10. Hi mates, fastidious post and good urging commented here, I am in fact enjoying by these.

  11. I feel that publishing companies and authors have always had the right to stop pircacy. The arguments of the those who support DRM are downright deceptive.

    First of all. Using the blind to make claims that it stops them from having easy acess to an e reader is pointless.

    Blind people have rights and should more rights. But that isn’t the arguement and should consider not acceptable on the table.

    Further I have considered contacting Congress to sit down and hammer out a law the prohibits making copies of an e file and distributing it without paying the author.

    So many arguments made in the tech world that call for an end to DRM are made by people who think that they’re arguements for
    a greater good in the US.

    Kind of like the American revolution.

    We’ll I got news for you.

    It aint 1776. You didnt fight for American freedoms.

    My family is in the US military and I am an American author.

    Every store that you walk into today has alarms on their products. Is it wrong. I don’t think so. If you so sqeeemish about companies and their product designers having the right to protect assets maybee you should see a pychologist.

    We usually term people who cannot face reality as nuts.

    Paul Pittman

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