Doctorow Blames Tech Platform Providers for DRM

Cory Doctorow’s keynote at the O’Reilly TOC conference in NYC today took a refreshing turn from his usual anti-DRM rants: he is now blaming platform providers like Amazon for the evils of DRM.  He claimed that platform providers are really the ones demanding DRM — for locking in users to their platforms — and, moreover, getting away with deflecting the blame for it onto publishers.

This may well be true for digital audiobooks.  Audible, owned by Amazon, has exclusive audiobook deals with many publishers and (more importantly) an exclusive arrangement with Apple to provide audiobooks on iTunes.  Almost a year ago, major book publishers called for removing DRM from digital audiobooks, to bring them in line with DRM-free music, but Audible hasn’t done it.   And Doctorow should know: he’s a successful book author whose publishers include the biggest of the majors.

For e-books, as we’ve seen, major publishers still require DRM, and the number of different e-book platforms out there — each with its own DRM — makes the situation a mess.  Doctorow called on the publishing people in the audience at TOC to boycott DRM, to at least choose whether a given title has DRM instead of letting the platform vendor require DRM for all content.  This is an interesting idea inasmuch as it would give publishers some leverage against platform providers, like Amazon, that seek to dominate the economics of digital publishing.

It’s good to see Cory Doctorow inching closer to understanding the economics of DRM.  He’s not quite there yet: he still thinks, for example, that platform vendors like Amazon and Apple try to make money directly from DRM (they don’t).  He also thinks that Overdrive is a “proprietary DRM” vendor (it’s not)  that went out of business (it didn’t) and turned off consumers’ access to e-books they purchased (not true).   

But this is progress.  Maybe someday he will also appreciate that DRM is meant to be a speed bump, not a piracy cure-all — which the media industry doesn’t consider it to be, and hasn’t in years, if it ever did at all.  

Cory is an important voice in the debate.  You might say … that he keeps honest people honest.


  1. Can you explain how DRM is “meant to be a speed bump” when it demonstrably fails in its intended purpose of piracy reduction?

    Or are you trying to say the intended purpose is something else and DRM defenders have simply been lying all along?

    And a speed bump for whose progress? Legitimate buyers’, I presume? They’re the only ones materially affected by DRM.

  2. DRM is intended to make it a hassle for certain not-very-tech-savvy users (legitimate buyers, yes) to do things that content owners don’t want done with their content. That is what “speed bump” means. For example, requiring iTunes users to burn their files to CDs and re-rip them in the clear is a speed bump.

    Meanwhile, this idea that the media industry adopted DRM believing that it is a hack-proof piracy cure-all is just plain romantic fantasy. It might have been believed by a few naive media industry people 8-10 years ago, and perhaps perpetuated by a few overzealous DRM salespeople, but the media industry in general has really never believed this. In general, anti-piracy execs at media companies look carefully at content use cases and decide which objectionable ones they can reduce with various forms of content protection. “DRM defenders” haven’t been lying all along; they just haven’t been well represented in the public discourse.

  3. Can you give a reasonable list of “things that content owners don’t want done with their content” that are and are not legally permitted?

    In other words, can you give me three actions that DRM impedes (via a “speed bump”) that are lawful and three that are unlawful?

    Can you also explain how, if the content owner is the author of a book (check the copyright page), a publisher has a right to encumber that author’s work with a technological protection measure? The publisher is not the content owner and doesn’t get to decide the things you apparently believe they should.

    You and I both know that few authors’ contracts explicitly permit such a thing.

  4. Joe,

    To your first point: generally that is a Fair Use discussion (at least in the United States). If there were such a reasonable list, then much of this entire discussion would become unnecessary and go away. But let’s agree on a few things:
    – A publisher doesn’t want me to make copies and resell them for my own profit. This is copyright infringement and unlawful.
    – A publisher may not want me to make copies for use on other devices that I own. This is probably legal, though technically speaking, it’s a fair use discussion and is untested as such in the courts. The publisher may want me to buy a separate copy for each device. Some publishers may be OK with a “rights locker” concept (see my post at, whereas others may not; we’ll see.
    – Other issues like the right to convert text to speech (read-aloud function) are generally permitted after the Adobe/Elcomsoft debacle of several years ago (ask me offline if you want details); I’d say this is another fair use issue from a legal perspective, but I’d defer to copyright law scholars who can quote any relevant case precedents.

    BTW I used the phrase “publishers don’t want done with their content” instead of “are illegal” very much on purpose, because
    a) of the ambiguity of U.S. fair use law
    b) in my view, too much emphasis is put on legality and not enough on business models vis-a-vis consumer expectations. But that’s a whole ‘nother subject for another time.

    To your point about author contracts explicitly giving publishers the right to use TPM/DRM on electronic versions of the works under contract: yes, I’ve never seen one that goes into that level of detail — none of my author contracts do — but a publisher’s attorney would argue that this right is implicit in language such as “electronic products” or “electronic derivative works” or “in all formats available now or to be discovered in the future.” Moreover, I’ve never heard of an author suing a publisher over this issue. Perhaps someday when e-book revenues constitute a big enough chunk of overall book sales, we’ll see some high-profile author do this.

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