Dispatches from IDPF Digital Book 2014, Pt. 3: DRM

The final set of interesting developments at last week’s IDPF Digital Book 2014 in NYC has to do with DRM and rights.

Tom Doherty, founder of the science fiction publisher Tor Books, gave a speech about his company’s experimentation with DRM-free e-books and its launch of a line of e-novellas without DRM.  The buildup to this speech (among those of us who were aware of the program in advance) was palpable, but the result fell with a thud.  You had to listen hard to find the tiny morsel about how going DRM-free has barely affected sales; otherwise the speech was standard-issue dogma about DRM with virtually no new insights or data.  And he did not take questions from the audience.

DRM has become something of a taboo subject even at conferences like this, so most of the rest of the discussion about it took the form of hallway buzz.  And the buzz is that many are predicting that DRM will be on its way out for retail trade e-books within the next couple of years.

That’s the way things are likely to go if technology market forces play out the way they usually do.  Retailers other than Amazon (and possibly Apple) will want to embrace more open standards so that they can offer greater interoperability and thus band together to compete with the dominant player; getting rid of DRM is certainly a step in that direction.  Meanwhile, publishers, getting more and more fed up with or afraid of Amazon, will find common cause with other retailers and agree to license more of their material for distribution without DRM.  (Several retailers in second-tier European countries as well as some retailers for self-publishing authors, such as Lulu, have already dropped DRM entirely.)

Such sentiments will eventually supersede most publishers’ current “faith-based” insistence on DRM.  In other words, publishers and retailers will behave more or less the same way as the major record labels and non-Apple retailers behaved back in 2006-2007.

This course of events seems inevitable… unless publishers get some hard, credible data that tells them that DRM helps prevent piracy and “oversharing” more than it hurts the consumer experience.  That’s the only way (other than outright inertia) that I can see DRM staying in place for trade books over the next couple of years.

The situation for educational, professional, and STM (scientific, technical, medical) books is another story (as are library lending and other non-retail models).  Higher ed publishers in particular have reasons to stick with DRM: for example, e-textbook piracy has been rising dramatically in recent years and is up to 34% of students as of last year.

Adobe recently re-launched its DRM with a focus on these publishing market segments. I’d describe the re-launch as “awkward,” though publishers I’ve spoken to would characterize in it less polite terms.  This has led to openings for other vendors, such as Sony DADC; and the Readium Foundation is still working on the open-source EPUB Lightweight Content Protection scheme.

The hallway buzz at IDPF Digital Book was that DRM for these market segments is here to stay — except that in higher ed, it may become unnecessary in a longer timeframe, when educational materials are delivered dynamically and in a fashion more akin to streaming than to downloads of e-books.

I attended a panel on EDUPUB, a standards initiative aimed at exactly this future for educational publishing.  The effort, led by Pearson Education (the largest of the educational publishers), the IMS Global Learning Consortium, and IDPF, is impressive: it’s based on combining existing open standards (such as IDPF’s EPUB 3) instead of inventing new ones.  It’s meant to be inclusive and beneficial to all players in the higher ed value chain, including Pearson’s competitors.

However, EDUPUB is in danger of making the same mistake as the IDPF did by ignoring DRM and other rights issues.  When asked about DRM, Paul Belfanti, Pearson’s lead executive on EDUPUB, answered that EDUPUB is DRM-agnostic and would leave decisions on DRM to providers of content delivery platforms. This decision was problematic for trade publishers when IDPF made it for EPUB several years ago; it’s even more potentially problematic for higher ed; EDUPUB-based materials could certainly be delivered in e-textbook form.

EDUPUB could also help enable one of the Holy Grails of higher ed publishing, which is to combine materials from multiple publishers into custom textbooks or dynamically delivered digital content.  Unlike most trade books, textbooks often contain hundreds or thousands of content components, each of which may have different rights associated with them.

Clearing rights for higher ed content is a manual, labor-intensive job.  In tomorrow’s world of dynamic digital educational content, it will be more important than ever to make sure that the content being delivered has the proper clearances, in real time.  In reality, this doesn’t necessarily involve DRM; it’s mainly a question of machine-readable rights metadata.

Attempts to standardize this type of rights metadata date back at least to the mid-1990s (when I was involved in such an attempt); none have succeeded.  This is a “last mile” issue that EDUPUB will have to address, sooner rather than later, for it to make good on its very promising start.  DRM and rights are not popular topics for standards bodies to address, but it has become increasingly clear that they must address these issues to be successful.

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