Tor and Baen books, two major publishers of speculative fiction, have decided to drop DRM technology from future e-books. DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is an approach used by publishers to control the use of e-books and limit copyright infringement, a.k.a. piracy. The technology has come under fire because it limits legitimate use by paying customers—such as transferring an e-book from a Kindle to a Nook reader—and hasn’t proven to be an effective anti-piracy tool. Writer John Scalzi notes that DRM hasn’t stopped his books from finding their way to “the dark side of the Internet” and feels that “people who do spend money to support me and my writing have been penalized for playing by the rules” because of the limits imposed on them by DRM.
As an aspiring writer, I am more aware of piracy than I used to be. The rights to my story are what allow me to earn income, and will be the foundation of any career I build as an author. Stealing those rights is the same as stealing money out of my pocket. In no way do I support the piracy of intellecutal or other property.
That said, I’m not convinced that piracy is “all bad” and will lead to the collapse of the publishing (or music) industry. In fact, studies have suggested that some level of piracy can actually enhance profits (for example, see here and here). By having an opportunity to read a book or story they would otherwise not buy, some “pirates” opt to become legitimate users in the future. To me, this has some similarity to checking out books from a library: I check out authors unfamiliar to me whose books I’m unwilling to pay for, and if I like them, I will often buy their other books. Without having read the first book for free, I likely would never have bought the others.
Is this a rationalization? I don’t know, but I suspect there’s some truth to it. While not all “pirates” will become legitimate readers, some will. Piracy of an e-book costs me (the author) effectively nothing, especially if the person had no intention of purchasing my book in the first place. Converting any of this group to legitimate future readers is a net gain. Of course, this makes the assumption that the people who would ordinarily buy the book, continue to do so instead of choosing to steal it instead. I don’t know if this is a valid assumption.
Regardless, if people are going to pirate books, then I want them to pirate my books. I’m not the only one to think this way either—a Microsoft executive has said: “If [you’re]going to pirate somebody, we want it to be us rather than somebody else.” While Microsoft certainly does not support piracy, they also see some potential benefit from having their software pirated.