Opening up e-books

Could DRM-free audio novels make way for unrestricted electronic books?

They made it look so easy. In a letter dated 21 February 2008, Madeline McIntosh, Random House's senior vice-president of audio, let her authors know that the company would be releasing audiobooks free of digital rights management (DRM). For six months, Random House had been testing DRM-free distribution. "Based on the successful results of that test," she announced, "we are now comfortable broadening this type of distribution."

DRM code wraps around digital content, attempting to restrict what a user can do with it. It was a pernicious invention of the 1990s designed to soothe record industry fears that the internet was about to destroy its business. In fact, it only hurt the industry further, hampering the legal downloads market by selling customers products inferior to the ones they could download (illegally) for free, and handing market dominance to the likes of Apple, players that could use DRM to lock consumers in to their hardware.

What does Random House's announcement, together with similar ones from Penguin and Simon & Schuster in the following week, mean for book lovers? In short, it means that those who download audiobooks can listen to them anywhere - on their laptop or on any MP3 player they care to own. They can even back up their collection on to, say, a removable hard drive.

They could also upload it to an illicit file-sharing system and deprive Random House authors of revenue. But McIntosh's research suggests that they won't. During the six-month trial - with the DRM-free retailers eMusic - Random House tracked all the audiobook files it sold without DRM. Not a single one ended up on peer-to-peer file-sharing. Which shows that honest customers, at least of the book-buying variety, are just that: honest.

The journey away from DRM has been a painful one for the recording industry, culminating in an avalanche of announcements from the big four labels last year that they were prepared to drop the digital prophylactics and enter the online world DRM-free. So, it must be slightly galling to witness the sensible ladies of publishing swishing past the exhausted bodies of recording industry lobbyists, eager to embrace the legal downloads market. But if publishing wants to be really adventurous, it could go even further.

How? It could take what it has learned about DRM on audio and apply it to e-books. Electronic books, from Sony's portable e-book reader to last year's storm in a teacup - Kindle - have never really taken off. Part of this has to do with the fact that the publishing industry is yet to endorse a DRM-free open standard for which hardware makers could openly compete to make attractive hand-held readers. Now that book-lovers have proved themselves such an honest bunch, let's hope open e-books are not too far away.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us