With booksellers' pressure: DRM is now soft in Germany

Image - iStockphoto: sssss1gmel
Image – iStockphoto: sssss1gmel

‘An Ever-Widening Industry Consensus’

Today, most of Germany’s main publishing forces are, or soon will be, hard-DRM-free.

Verlagsgruppe Random House 300This morning, we had the first reports from Buchreport: Random House Germany has joined the other leading publishers there, citing “an ever-widening industry consensus.” At The Bookseller, we have Anja Sieg’s report here. As of 1st October, Verlagsgruppe Random House has announced that it will switch from “hard DRM” to “soft” or “social” DRM — digital watermarking.

Retailers, therefore, will have a choice as to whether to apply hard DRM, themselves. And booksellers are among the driving forces behind that “ever-widening industry consensus,” as it has played out in Germany. Is there anything here suggesting a way forward in the UK, US or other markets on Digital Rights Management, DRM? Can we put together a context in which bookshops and bookstores and their customers and publishers might navigate this part of the digital dynamic in the future? Perhaps. The High Street may want to study what has happened.

Briefly, Germany’s booksellers have argued that if publishers didn’t “soften” DRM — so that customers could easily use store-bought ebooks across devices of their choosing — then Amazon would ultimately “own” the ebook market and shut out the shops.

A Kindle ebook sold in Germany continues to be protected by Amazon’s form of “hard” DRM, the Kindle file system which maintains its sales and distribution construct in what we term a “walled garden.” That’s not changing. But the Kindle system is so convenient for consumers to use that the fear has been that its dominance would rise if bookshops couldn’t offer a genuinely manageable alternative for readers to use with their ebooks.

The translation of the Random House Germany statement I’m seeing refers to digital watermarking as offering “a reasonable protection against misuse.” Digital or “social” watermarking has been described by Martyn Daniels inBookseller reports in the past, this way:

The social DRM is basically a watermark (visible or invisible) which is unique to each sale/loan and can be applied once, or across every page. It can detail both the terms and who bought it, as well as when and where they did so.

That watermark is traceable, and improper use of the content to which it’s applied, then, is trackable. And, of course, one of the longest-running elements of the debate has been who is being “locked out” (imperfectly, as we know) by “hard DRM”? Piracy sites do exist, and I’ve been contacted recently by self-publishing authors who told me they were finding their titles spuriously offered on some of those sites. But there is also a widespread opinion that simple consumer file sharing — akin to handing your copy of Go Set a Watchman to a friend or family member once you’d read it — is what hard DRM has blocked, much more frequently than it has slowed profiteering pirates.

And the focus may need to stand elsewhere, at least as we look at this development.

Ebooks, Yes, But Also Publishers And Booksellers

Some advisors in-country emphasise that the German story is not “about” ebooks, per se: Instead, they say, it’s about publishers needing the support of the nation’s booksellers.

True, the news release from Random House Germany today includes the line, “We want to promote interest in digital reading further, and make it as simple as possible for readers to read ebooks.” But ebooks are, in the aggregate, a relatively small percentage of the market in Germany. Print still is very powerful, it moves in bookstores, and those bookstores have had a good, hard stare at the industry. The industry has paid attention.

Other factors are in play, surely: Hard DRM costs something when publishers apply it, a small per-copy cost (I’m told between 15 and 22 cents per copy on average) but that adds up.

But the repeated refrain is that “as simple as possible” is the part of the Random House statement to focus on. Consumers have had difficulty registering for permission to ease some hard-DRM restrictions on how broadly they could use their protected copies of content. The main source of complaint in the German developments around DRM seems to have come from the shops, speaking, as it were, on behalf of their customers who were reportedly annoyed and frustrated by such DRM restrictions and likely to bolt to Amazon if given too much hassle.

Literary agents in Germany, my colleagues tell me, felt particular pressure from both the shops and from the publishers, and have become willing to renegotiate contracts where needed to allow for a change in DRM format.

There’s more to this story: Read the rest


By Porter Ander­son  

The FutureBook:  With booksellers’ pressure: DRM is now soft in Germany

Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook

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In our FutureBook Conference later this year, Peter Meyers will chair a panel on the nature and potentials of content in the digital age, and he is also to lead a special interactive discussion in the outlook for the book and its new possibilities. More details on the conference are to come soon. Mark your calendar for 4th December and plan to join us at The Mermaid. 


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