While I was attending and presenting at O’Reilly Media’s TOC conference in Frankfurt, I had a chance to talk briefly with Cory Doctorow, who had delivered one of three keynote presentations earlier in the day.

Now, Cory is not always the most popular guy in a room full of publishers (lately, apparently, neither am I). He has a focused and sometimes forceful point of view when it comes to topics like copyright and piracy, and he doesn’t mince words.

Cory had attended the update I gave on the impact of P2P file distribution on paid content sales, and he said he had a “nit” to pick with me. Given Cory’s extensive history and interest in the topic, I was more than a little curious about what he wanted to share.

In the presentation, I had described some content in the sample set as “DRM-protected”. He asked if I would consider changing the phrase to “DRM-restricted”. I agreed that it made sense to do so, and we went our separate ways for the rest of the day (and the Book Fair).

But the exchange has stuck with me. When Barnes & Noble announced its new reader and described its social reading features (the ability to share content in serial fashion, for example), “DRM-protected” cropped up again and again in coverage and commentary. I found myself asking, if DRM is protecting authors and publishers, who is it protecting them from?

My answer, not uniquely: readers.

A recent post on Access Romance leads the way on this: we’re restricting the rights of readers just in case they turn into pirates. Digital books that come with DRM for the most part can’t be shared, can’t be handed down, can’t be resold. Why do people pay less for an e-book? Because it’s worth less to them.

For the most part, in studying piracy, I’ve steered clear of DRM. O’Reilly does not use DRM to restrict the use of its content, something that initially led us to think they would be more vulnerable to lost sales through piracy. So far, that is not what we have found.

I’m not prepared to argue that piracy is not a threat and so we should abandon DRM. But if we care about readers paying more for content, we have to recognize that DRM restricts use and lowers the value of the content inside. Teaching our best customers to pay less for things does not seem like a good idea.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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