At the London Book Fair, one of the major topics of discussion was publishers discussing cessation of DRM use on their ebooks. DRM - digital rights management - is the encryption added to digital media which prevents copying, conversion, and some other sorts of uses of the media. In some cases, it might force the use of a user key to use the media. In others, it locks the media to a specific device. For ebooks, generally it prevents copying, prevents use on other devices, and prevents conversion. All of the largest publishers used DRM as an anti-piracy measure - until yesterday. TOR, a subsidiary of Macmillan, announced that their imprints would be issuing ebooks DRM free in the US and UK.
Tom Doherty Associates, publishers of Tor, Forge, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen, today announced that by early July 2012, their entire list of e-books will be available DRM-free.
“Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time,” said president and publisher Tom Doherty. “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”
DRM-free titles from Tom Doherty Associates will be available from the same range of retailers that currently sell their e-books. In addition, the company expects to begin selling titles through retailers that sell only DRM-free books.
Removal of DRM is a big, BIG deal.
First off, it's important to understand that DRM is ineffective. There is no unhacked DRM; in fact, any ebook from any major vendor can have the DRM quickly and easily removed with free tools you can acquire using a simple Google search. And once even one person removes DRM from a book and posts it publicly, the DRM free version is out there, being passed around.
Second, public feedback on ebooks without DRM has been positive. For example, in the hours after Pottermore opened, pirated versions appeared online (they don't use DRM, they use watermarking of the files instead). User response was immediate: they saw this as taking advantage of a product which was already doing as users asked (cheap and DRM free), and within hours most of the pirated versions were taken down without the company having to do anything.
Third, and this is critical for publishers (and it's key to understanding why TOR and other publishers are getting ready to remove DRM now), the main thing DRM does today is keep anyone but Amazon from selling books for Kindle devices and software.
Most people reading ebooks use Kindles or Kindle software on other devices (about 2/3). The only form of DRMed book that can be read on those is the sort bought from Amazon; anyone can make DRM-free mobi files, but only Amazon can sell Kindle ebooks with DRM. The result is that it's impossible for companies like Google and Apple to really compete with Amazon for their market share - it's locked into a "walled garden" by DRM.
Removing DRM would allow other companies to sell mobi books. It would allow new indie ebookstores to open up, selling epub AND mobi files. Since mobi/Kindle is the most popular ebook format right now, indie ebookstores at the moment are locked into competing with B&N/Apple/Kobo for the other third of the market.
Removing DRM opens the door for more companies to begin nibbling at slices of the Amazon pie. I suspect this could make a huge difference in the long run, allowing greater competition between online bookstores and more viability for smaller startups in ebook retail.
In short, this is a smart, smart move, and one which I believe other publishers will follow once they see TOR's success. Kudos to TOR for having the courage and foresight to go first.
Addendum 1: John Scalzi (SFWA president) sounds off on the subject here.
Addendum 2: More on the topic from Charles Stross.