So it started with JK Rowling who went platform independent and effectively DRM free on the Harry Potter series. This meant that for those books purchasers would not be locked into any one platform (e.g., Kindle) and that also meant that no platform could use lock-in to build up market power. Interestingly, you can’t buy those books from Apple’s iBookstore but you can buy them direct from Pottermore and import them into iBooks (which has always allowed the open ePub standard). Some other publishers have offered DRM free versions but JK Rowling was the first to break through Amazon’s store to get what is effectively a non-platform specific version on the Kindle.

Today comes an announcement from TOR books (who is owned by Macmillan) that their entire line of science fiction books will be available in a DRM free version.

“Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time,” said president and publisher Tom Doherty. “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”

DRM-free titles from Tom Doherty Associates will be available from the same range of retailers that currently sell their e-books. In addition, the company expects to begin selling titles through retailers that sell only DRM-free books.

Now as Amazon sell these as do Apple, I wonder if that means TOR will be using a similar method that Pottermore uses to break through those platforms. It will be interesting to see.

This all suggests that publishers are waking up to the fact that if they have ceded power to eBook platforms it is of their own choosing by insisting on DRM. Absent DRM, publishers risk piracy or worse, unfettered lending just as they did in the old physical book days but what they gain is consumers who feel free to choose eBook readers for as long as the eBook readers themselves lasts rather than indefinitely into the future. Just as Pottermore does, this will allow them to retain pricing control while preventing a monopoly bottleneck from emerging in the value chain; well, unless someone gets a monopoly over devices.

The same thing happened in music. DRM was the thing that got music publishers interested in digital downloads (like iTunes) and then something we couldn’t have predicted in 2003 happened; DRM was abandoned and nobody really noticed. What is more DRM was abandoned with a coincidental 30% (!) price increase to consumers as compensation for the extra value provided by portability. My feeling (based on no real evidence) is that overall the consumers won out of that deal (they are paying a little more to save on paying lots more later). It will be interesting to see how TOR’s pricing changes as it goes DRM free.

[Update: Charlie Stross suggests DRM free makes file conversion easy.]

4 Responses to The DRM free movement for eBooks expands

  1. Dan Hill says:

    Joshua, I think you would agree, but just to make it explicit, DRM capabilities on the Kindle are provided by Amazon not because they believe in DRM (they led the push to sell DRM free MP3s) but because that was the only way to convince major publishers to make their titles available as ebooks. There is no reason any book cannot be published to the Kindle without DRM at any time e.g. this from the Kindle Direct Publishing FAQ “You may choose, on a per title basis, to have us apply Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology…”

  2. Dan Hill says:

    Meant to add, JKR didn’t need the complexity of her Pottermore setup to seel DRM free versions of her book on Kindle. I suspect the driver is more about the commercial terms, although it’s hard to imagine Amazon wouldn’t have bent over backwards to match her current royalty deals…

  3. Joshua Gans says:

    Perhaps I was getting ahead of myself here. The important step is a major publisher going DRM. I agree that this is not quite an Amazon restriction.

    What the next step is, is something like JK Rowling — buy once and use on any device. DRM free options help there but more is needed to truly counter the market power coming from locked-in collections.

  4. I don’t think that TOR will be using a similar method that Pottermore uses to break through those platforms. But we have to wait and see what will happen. It will be interesting to see the reaction.

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