I have articles in the latest issues of two venerable publishing industry journals, Publishing Trends and The Seybold Report, on the mess that is e-book DRM. Those two publications have paid subscriberships; far be it from me to circumvent them. But let me give you the gist. Besides, you’ll find this familiar territory if you read this regularly.
Growth in the resurgent e-book market is threatened by unfettered proliferation of e-book platforms, formats, and DRMs. Amazon has its own DRM for the Kindle, which is based on the one it acquired from Mobipocket. Adobe has an e-book DRM based on its Content Server software platform, which it is trying to get various e-book reader makers to adopt; only Sony has done so thus far. And then there is the increasing number of proprietary e-book platforms and DRMs.
Publishers I’ve talked to seem oblivious to the strategic implications of this mess. They seem happy to do e-book deals on an ad hoc basis, and they are hardly involved in setting industry strategy for e-book DRM at all. The IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum), formerly known as the Open e-Book Forum, designed the EPUB standard but punted on including DRM.
Amazon appears to be following a strategy for e-books that is right out of the Apple iTunes/iPod music playbook. Amazon’s equivalent of iTunes is its existing website, which has an enormous user base. The Kindle is a proprietary device that is being positioned as revolutionary with respect to reading rather than just as a better e-book reader — just as Apple positioned the iPod for music listening.
Even “Jeff Bezos” is nearly an anagram of “Steve Jobs.”
Meanwhile, Adobe’s strategy begins to look like that of Microsoft for digital music — they may get lots of partners, but they risk little traction.
If publishers don’t act quickly, they face two alternatives, neither of which is very pleasant. In one, Amazon succeeds in emulating Apple’s success in music and takes control of e-book business models. In the other, excessive fragmentation leads to confusion, frustration, angry pieces from the blogosphere about the evils of DRM, and a limited market.
Publishers need to get involved now at a strategic level. At a minimum, this means understanding the technology as well the implications of interoperability and standardization. The industry must take into account the real differences in requirements from one segment to another: for example, DRM must be more stringent in higher ed (e-textbooks) than for trade book content.
As a veteran of various publishing industry rights-related standards initiatives — which have ranged from narrow successes to outright failures — I have a jaundiced view of standards as the solution to this problem. My view is not only that they take too long but also that they lead publishers to believe that they needn’t take responsibility themselves — that they can just leave it to the standards body. And of course standards initiatives in general are constrained by antitrust law.
Besides, Amazon won’t adopt standards anyway if it truly intends to follow the Apple model.
One possibility for the publishing industry is to follow the model that Hollywood is crafting through the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), in which users can purchase rights to content once and be able to download it onto the (compliant) devices of their choice. Some service providers, such as Overdrive and eBooks.com, already support multiple e-book platforms and DRMs. They can adopt this type of model, but publishers must agree to support it in their licensing agreements.