‘Hunger Games’ publisher’s DRM bungle: New opportunity for libraries—selling e-books you can own for real?

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Scholastic Corporation, the venerable publisher of the Hunger Games series and the U.S. editions of the Harry Potter titles, has jolted the book world with a brutal reminder.

We readers do not own DRMed books for real.

The conglomerate’s Storia arm is switching from selling children’s e-books to offering them by streamed subscription. I of course use the word “sell” loosely.

Customers will need to open their e-books “on a bookshelf at least once by October 15.” If all goes well—the Scholastic site fudges with a “may”—young reader can then keep enjoying the titles. To Scholastic’s credit, buyers have until August 1, 2015, to request refunds.

So much for the positives. Now—the big negative. Just what kind of a lesson is this leading educational publisher teaching children about books?

DRM: The enemy of what makes a book a book

Aren’t books supposed to be for the centuries, at least the very best ones? Simply put, DRM is the enemy of what makes a book a book. Don’t so many of us want to live forever? We can’t. But without DRM, perhaps some of the books we love can.

Ideally Scholastic would never have insisted on DRM in the first place, at least not when authors and other content-suppliers allowed sanity. Then Storia could have blamed the vanishing books on others.

Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader reminds us of similar DRM-related messes in the past when other stores have stopped selling. He sensibly asks “whether we need new consumer protection laws to stop otherwise healthy companies from simply shuttering digital services and leaving customers with no content, no money, and no recourse. Sure, one could argue that it is covered under a contract, but is that a fair or reasonable contract?”

No! For years others have voiced similar similar sentiments and hoped for corrective laws. Don’t get your hopes up, though, not with the content-providers outbidding the other side in Washington, D.C., for politicians’ affections.

Library stores as alternatives to e-book DRM

So what’s the library angle? Well, as attentive LibraryCity regulars know, this site has called for the creation of library ecosystems as seamless as Amazon’s.

You couldn’t just borrow books for free from a national digital library cobranded with your local library. Rather you could also subscribe to a library-run collection in the Netflix mode if you wanted to read popular books earlier than otherwise. Or you could buy books from libraries—ideally with either no DRM or with social DRM, which needn’t interfere with the permanence of books.

Granted, pirates can bypass social DRM. But given the ease of scanning paper books, nothing is secure in the end anyway.

Anti-DRM focus as a way to stand apart

Own-for-real books—both library-published and from other sources—would be one way for libraries to distinguish their commercial wares from those of DRM-crazed stores and publishers.

At the same time libraries could offer links to Amazon and rivals as well as to publishers directly. But they would give the most prominent display to books to which library patrons would enjoy eternal access through “book lockers.” Even DRMed titles, when authors and publishers allowed. As institutions, at least in the U.S., libraries are far more long-lived and thus more trustworthy than e-bookstores themselves. The digital stores could actually turn cooperation with libraries into a selling proposition.

That said, the most elegant solution is the most obvious. Publishers, bookstores and authors should voluntarily drop DRM from “sold” books.

I’d still want library stores for other reasons, such as popularization of out-of-fashion literary works ill-served by Amazon and the like, but I would be delighted if others beat them to the punch.

If not, consumer protection laws should flatly forbid e-book DRM in most retail situations, and yes, there could be exemptions for library books or rentals. D.C. campaign donations notwithstanding, we at least can dream, right?

Meanwhile libraries should help patrons distinguish between being a borrower and a genuine owner—paving the way for the time when the institutions themselves can set example as book-originators and -sellers.

Risks_form_smoking-smoking_can_damage_every_part_of_the_bodyFar from wishing harm to big content providers, I believe that reduced reliance on DRM would help make their books more competitive against video games and other rival entertainment.

Publishers still using DRM should think of it as like smoking—a destructive habit well worth breaking.

Inspiration from Pottermore

Want even more evidence that retail DRM is for losers?

I don’t know all the details of the Hunger Games and Harry Potter books in regard to Storia. But I can say Storia was selling the Pottermore editions of Harry Potter (based on Google’s cache as read today) and that J. K. Rowling’s bookstore was faring very well without DRMing them.

As summed up by Mercy Pilkington of the Good eReader blog, then-Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne said piracy was actually 25 percent lower than when the books were legally available only in print.

And he “recounted incidences when the e-books were actually placed on file sharing websites, but most were quickly removed when it became known that all of the e-books are sold with an embedded digital watermark, essentially tracking the person who uploaded the pirated copy.”

Mind you, Pottermore or at least Amazon and some other stores have not totally kept DRM from tainting the Potter titles—see Nate’s revelations. But at least Redmayne is on record as favoring the watermark alternative.

Should the watermark concept be applied to movies and video games, too? I won’t delve into that issue right now. What is clear is that lack of onerous “protection” would be one way for e-books as a medium to enjoy an edge in this way. Libraries owe it to the publishing industry as well as the public to wage a fierce war against DRMing of retailed books. Once again, tobacco addiction comes to mind. If the victims can’t break the habit on their own, don’t shy away from giving them a little help.

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