Indie Authors and the Problem of Piracy

Apr 24, 2012 | Opinions

In mainstream publishing, there is a definite worry that piracy is looming problem that must be guarded against and ultimately defeated. They fear the so-called ‘Napster-ization’ of their industry, similar to what happened to the music industry and the movie industry and… well, every other industry that produces entertainment. The only difference between publishing and the others is that publishing has been around for hundreds of years, and books provide a lot more entertainment per dollar than, say, a CD.

My opinion is rather different. I do not approve of DRM; it’s a waste of effort, a fool’s game, and ultimately, counter-productive. This is not to say that I approve of piracy, but I don’t disapprove of it either. My stance on it is neutral, and I believe that indie authors have nothing to fear from it.

The Concept of DRM

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, of course. At its core, it is any system that prevents an end-user from making copies of the digital file they have purchased which can then be given free to other people they know. The reasoning is that other people have to buy their own copy, or the creator of that digital file will face a massive loss in income as fewer people pay for the file.

Technically speaking, this is already ridiculous.

Modern computers are designed to copy. They have to, at a most basic level, in order to function at all. This means that every program needs to be able to copy; every function on a computer depends on being able to copy; everything about modern electronics needs, somewhere, to copy files around in order to work. This includes things like, say, a program that can play a movie file or a program that can open an ebook. What DRM tries to do is stop a specific kind of copying, in defiance of all this, and inevitably things go wrong. The end result of this is that people who have legitimately purchased a file may find that they can’t use it or read it or watch it, because the DRM has interfered.

But what about the pirates, I hear you ask? What about the people who haven’t paid, who need to be stopped? Surely the inconvenience is worth it if th DRM prevents their dastardly activities? Now we come to…

The Technical Side of DRM

Here’s the short version: there is not one DRM system – not one – that has ever succeeded in stopping piracy. The vast, vast majority don’t even slow it down. The best a DRM scheme can hope for, by all accounts, is to prevent something from being pirated for, oh, maybe a week or two.

Here’s the longer version.

The major problem of DRM is one that will never go away. Eventually, after you deliver the file to the end user, you must give them the ability to use it. If they paid for an ebook, they must be able to read it. If they paid for a movie, they must be able to watch it. This means that you essentially have to give them the means to copy it, or their program or device won’t be able to display it.

Let’s say you have an ebook. You sell it to a customer, and it has a DRM scheme on it which means the file is encrypted. They can copy the file and give it to someone, but it’s useless without the key. Simple, isn’t it?

Well, no. Encryption is great, yes, but not if you give them the password to decrypt it – and you have to do that or they won’t be able to read it. At some point, somewhere, the file needs to be opened up and made accessible, and at that point, it’s possible for a very technical user to figure out how to copy the ‘ebook’ bit without getting the ‘DRM’ bit. Then it’s all over bar the shouting; that new DRM-free file can be copied endlessly and given away to anyone.

Should You be Worried?

You would be forgiven for thinking that it’s all doom and gloom, but no. No indie author should ever worry about piracy. It’d be like worrying about whether it’ll rain tomorrow – it’d probably put a bit of a damper on your day, but it’s not like you can stop it happening. This is why I neither approve or disapprove of it. It’s more like a natural occurrence, one that you should plan for but ultimately have no control over.

Part of the problem faced by the major publishing houses right now is that they seem to think that their industry is somehow special. The movie industry, games industry, music industry, and TV industry have all tried and failed to put even the smallest dent in the rates of piracy worldwide through the use of things like DRM. Lawsuits, even, are no deterrent. The penalties for breaching copyright have been ratcheted up with no visible effect. (One of the only things, in fact, that reduces piracy is when media is available conveniently and at a fair price.) For the majors to think that they will be any different is somewhat blinkered thinking, and one that will blind them to the greater possibilities of how to use the Internet in their business.

My opinion is that any aspiring author should consider becoming an independent simply because of the DRM problem. The majors insist on it, and, as Charles Stross points out, this locked them into Amazon (who was able to provide it when ebooks were taking off) and, coincidently, locked a giant chunk of ebook sales into the Kindle, and gave Amazon the power to dictate the course of the market. It’s still nothing but a headache for legitimate users, and the pirates it’s supposed to restrict are more than capable of stripping out the DRM and sharing their ebooks as normal.

Bottom line, it causes more trouble than it’s worth.