DRM-Free Day, forever.

Authors and publishers need to get creative with piracy. DRM isn't the answer.

Before reading too far into this, you should know that supporting DRM-free content does not mean O’Reilly supports stealing, pirating, or other forms of theft. You should know that we take theft of copyrighted material seriously, but we also understand there are situations you cannot stop or may not want to stop. The gist of this post is about that last notion.

It seems like a lot of first time authors, experienced authors, editors, publishers, and publishing technologists lose sleep pondering DRM and piracy issues surrounding digital content and its availability and prevalence on the web. I’d like to say to them all, “chill out and sleep.” This is not a flash-in-the-pan situation and there are some very simple things you can do to prosper. This issue has been around for a long time and will be around for a long time to come.

A couple years ago, David Pogue was gracious enough to participate in an experiment on DRM-free content in the wild with O’Reilly. You can read his conclusions here, but his bottom-line was this:

“The results? It was true. The thing was pirated to the skies. It’s all over the Web now, ridiculously easy to download without paying. The crazy thing was, sales of the book did not fall. In fact, sales rose slightly during that year. That’s not a perfect, all-variables-equal experiment, of course; any number of factors could explain the results. But for sure, it wasn’t the disaster I’d feared.”

I think this is a pretty important revelation. Sales increased during the year Pogue’s work was intentionally let out DRM-free. I wonder what would have happened if we had a banner ad on Pirate Bay during the experiment that indicated you could get the print and digital versions of “XYZ title” at our retail price of the print product for anyone using the coupon “Pirate-bay.” My point here is we need to get creative with piracy and how to work with it instead of thinking DRM, lawyers, or search engine blocks will address the problem.

Most recently, Eric Freeman and Beth Robson, authors of “Head First Design Patterns,” “Head First HTML” and “Head First HTML5 Programming” re-kindled an old thread with O’Reilly about DRM and piracy. This is a thread that most authors feel strongly about. You can read an interesting take on this from four years ago here.

This time Beth opened the discussion with:

“I’m already seeing ‘HF HTML5 Programming’ popping up on illegal file sharing sites. This morning: http://bit.ly/IM7I84. Is O’Reilly on this? Do you know what they do about it, if anything? I realize we can’t stop it but just curious.”

And Eric chimed in with:

“When I checked a day or so after the digital copy went live they were the top searches in Google. While you may not be able to stop Pirate’s Bay, etc. You should be able to have Google remove the links.”

Based on my years of publishing with O’Reilly and others, I replied:

“I disagree with you on this. I think this helps market the book. ‘HF Design Patterns’ has been one of the books that shows up most on the P2P sites, yet sells consistently well. Have you not heard Tim’s rant that piracy is not the enemy of authors, obscurity is. The people who steal, will always steal for whatever their reasons are and will figure out how to get what they want.”

Let’s dig into my reply a little deeper to see why I could make such a statement. First of all, let’s look at some numbers. When I search for ‘book torrents” there are 77,800,000 results returned by Bing from the uTorrent client. And 12,000,000 hits returned from a Google search. When I searched for “technical book torrents” there were 20,300,000 results returned from Bing and 5,180,000 results returned from Google. Further refining this search, I looked for “O’Reilly Torrents” and got 937,000 results from Bing and 23,200,000 results from Google, which reverses Bing and Google from the preceding numbers. Diving in a bit on this and searching for “Head First Design Patterns” returns this:

Head First Design Patterns Bing search results

Head First Design Patterns Google search results

Notice that there are more than 69 million hits available when you search inside of uTorrent, which uses the Bing search engine. An interesting side note: I began clicking into the search pages and found as soon as I got to page 10 or so, the results change to “211-220 of 191,000 results,”‘ which is drastically different than 69 million. But the links were valid until about page 54, where I received the message “531-540 of 32,600 results” and many of the links were not for the Head First book torrent. So the long story short, there a boatload of torrents out there, but not as many as it first appears, yet I could find and download this title within seconds.

Getting out of the weeds and back to the point of this, there are plenty of available torrents for “Head First Design Patterns” and all of our Head First and O’Reilly books. But does the availability of torrents slow the sales of our books in both print and digital forms? Since 2004, O’Reilly has three Head First books in the top 15 all-time revenue generators (dollars at the cash registers), according to Nielsen Bookscan’s Technical Book reports. If we only count the books that have a sticker price under $100, Head First has three of the top 10 all time. And the last time I looked, our Head First titles dominated the top 10 titles at Safaribooksonline.com. “Design Patterns,” “Java” and “HTML” lead the way for O’Reilly in revenue generated in bookstores, revenue generated at Safari, and pirated copies on the web. Is this just a coincidence? Or is this the cost of doing business?

I believe that people who cannot afford to purchase a $50 book are likely not going to forgo other necessities so they can pay. I am pretty confident that if you did a demographic study of the people who grab torrents and unauthorized content off the Internet, the majority of them would not be economically able to pay the prices on the products. Another data point to think about is when you were in college, was the money you spent on books a good experience as you saw your beer, food, date, clothes, and incidental money fritter away on books? So here’s an interesting twist: Do these college kids go on to real jobs making real money, and do they remember the books that taught them what they needed to know? You bet. Are they more willing to purchase from that publisher in the future when they have real tangible money? You bet. Are they an early-stage marketing investment for publishers? You bet.

Here’s the rub: Some publishers may feel good that their books are not all over P2P networks, available in torrents, or DRM-free editions. But really, think about this. If nobody wants your content bad enough to get it and make it available, should you have published it? Obscurity is more of an enemy than piracy. Here is the double rub: If your content is free and on P2P networks, torrents, etc. and people are not downloading it, is it any good? Seriously. Most of these sites show the number of downloads on the page so others can see if lots of people like your content. I think it would be embarrassing if nobody wanted my works for free. As a publisher, it’d be something to make us re-evaluate our publishing plans, quickly. Again, I am looking at this as the cost of business, similar to a marketing taxation of sorts.

Adding DRM to content to deter theft… are you kidding me? Seriously, think about that. It will take a good programmer about an hour to get past most DRM, or a manual shop somewhere in the world will cut and scan the physical book and away it goes. DRM seems a bit like a Neanderthal dragging its knuckles rather than using its larger brain and brawn to move forward and past stuff that did not help the species evolve. As an industry we need to evolve past the archaic DRM that’s retarding growth and innovation in our industry. New DRM technologies are not innovation, they are a Neanderthal-like reaction. We need distribution innovation. We need learning science innovation. We need total immersion with content innovation. We need production and manufacturing innovation. At this time our industry is staring down the barrel of a powerful gun that can soon dictate the means, price, availability of content creation and distribution if we do not figure out novel ways to move forward. Can we use P2P networks and torrents to help promote and advertise our content and services? Can we think of peer distribution and payment networks that could work with us? Can we think of ways to embed links into our content that drives people back to our websites where we can engage them in many more products and services that may be more appropriate for their economic status? You may get to learn more from these people and hear the reasons why they grabbed unauthorized content. Maybe that creates an opportunity for a follow-on product or derivative.

I hope you see enough compelling reasons to go DRM-free. Because to us, DRM-free is something that the publishing industry should embrace not just for one day, but forever.

Sleep well my friends.

Photo: “Eliminate DRM by YayAdrian, on Flickr


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