You may be wondering why I didn’t jump all over the announcement that Macmillan was going to stop using DRM on several of its imprints by the middle of this year. In some quarters, it was treated as a Big Event, a sign that the era of closed systems and poor reader experiences was coming to a close.
I think that Macmillan’s decision makes good business sense. By starting with a limited set of imprints, the publisher has a chance to test the impact of selling DRM-free titles across a number of dimensions: sales, reader satisfaction and instances of piracy are examples.
But if I sound cautiously optimistic, it reflects a sense that the tide has not turned when it comes the use of DRM or the study of the true impact of piracy.
As I’ve covered before, DRM locks publishers and readers into specific platforms. It does not suppress piracy. Linking the two, as many commentors did when Macmillan made the announcement, conflates two different activities.
As publishing becomes more digital, there’s a fear that piracy will inevitably increase, in the end denying authors and publishers revenues. This world view governs the priorities of organizations like the AAP, Britain’s Publishers Association and of course the Authors Guild.
TechDirt has done some good reporting on the apparent dichotomy between proclaiming strong growth in digital markets and calling for crackdowns on piracy, which threaten to undermine revenues. As Glyn Moody noted yesterday, the relationships between availability and lost sales have been explored in only the most limited ways.
To help fill that void, TechDirt compiled a research report, “The sky is rising“, that claims that “all of the creative industries are thriving”. Their analysis shows that, in a period of apparently rampant and growing piracy, media sales grew. The number of new works grew. Digital sales grew.
There is nuance in the way that the impact of piracy can be assessed, but any analysis starts with data, much of which we have yet to develop. There’s room in the middle to figure out what is really happening, but until we start to meet there, Macmillan’s decision feels less like a turning point than it might.