Fahrenheit 451 as the future of books?

Books are going through their most serious change since the development of movable type. It’s now cheaper and easier to distribute them electronically than by physical copies. In fact, it’s too easy to suit publishers. In the absence of inhibiting technology or legal fears, anyone can make huge numbers of copies and distribute them. This creates an obvious problem for publishers and authors: How do they make any money?

There are two main approaches. One is to trust readers to pay rather than grab free copies; the other is to create technical barriers to copying. Both have serious problems.

The trust-based approach assumes some people will go for the free copies, but enough will pay to keep the authors fed and the publishers making a profit. The problem is that when people see they can get something without paying, quite a large number of them will. The paying market may shrink over time, as people notice that more and more of their friends aren’t bothering to pay. The protection-based approach (DRM) assumes sufficient powers of enforcement to keep people from circumventing protection. Serious protection is impossible; the words have to be delivered to the user in the end, so people just have to figure out how to tap into the output stream and make a permanent copy.

Both approaches reward breaking the rules. People who take copies of unprotected books get them for free. People who take copies of protected books get that, as well as the benefit of having a copy which isn’t dependent on the publisher’s continued support to remain readable.

The idea of lending a book doesn’t work well with e-books. You can lend a physical book, because it can be in only one place at a time. With an e-book, you still have it, so it’s meaningless to talk about returning it. All you can really do is give out a copy with a promise that the “borrower” will observe some kind of restriction. It’s easy to forget those promises, even easier than it is to forget to return a book. Most large publishers won’t sell e-books to libraries, and those that do provide a copy that expires after a certain number of checkouts.

The biggest problem with books with DRM restrictions is that they will inevitably become useless after a while. Even with the best of intentions, it’s silly to suppose that Amazon will support today’s DRM on the computers of 2112 (if there’s even an Amazon then). Every book issued with DRM will go down the memory hole in a few decades or less. It will take longer than that for them to go out of copyright. If DRM becomes the default way of issuing books, that will add up to major cultural amnesia.

Actually, though, the books won’t disappear, because lawbreakers won’t let them. There will be people making illicit unprotected copies. Perhaps law enforcement can keep them off the public Internet, but it can’t keep them off people’s private computers or keep people from exchanging them covertly. This is a scenario right out of Fahrenheit 451, with “firemen” destroying all the copies of books they can find but being unable to stamp out the underground that keeps them alive.

It’s not the only possible future, though. Music distributors have mostly given up on DRM and haven’t gone bankrupt. However, this works because musicians have live performances as a source of income, and they can consider every illicit copy of their recordings as advertising. Can the book publishing industry find a comparable channel to monetize free riders? One possibility is selling subscriptions which give readers special privileges, such as access to discussion forums in which the authors participate.

I strongly suspect that e-books will make the existing model of book sales obsolete, whether they use DRM or not. Publishers can try as hard as they want to create technical and legal impediments, but that just won’t work. The tougher the restrictions, the more inconvenience and resentment they’ll create. Something different will have to develop.

Personally, I avoid “buying” downloads with DRM. The “buy” button is a lie; read the fine print, and you’ll see that the content is licensed, not sold. Recently I “bought” a TV episode on iTunes because I was so eager to see it that I didn’t mind the $3.99; when it finished downloading it was unplayable because it used a codec requiring hardware I don’t have. If iTunes could figure that out after downloading the movie, why couldn’t it warn me before charging my credit card? Hardware incompatibility can happen even without DRM, of course, but I’ll take that as a lesson.

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