Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest Post: Digital Rights Management: Which Way Is India Headed

Ebooks In India Today

Ebooks is the new buzz-word in publishing in India. Most publishers – big and small – have begun the process of converting their printed books into formats that can be used by online retail stores that are going to be housing the content and selling it. The entry of big online retailers like Flipkart and Amazon, and the popularity of ebooks in the Western markets have provided the impetus to Indian publishers to venture into an arena they have been reluctant to get into until recently, and publishers now promise that most of their content will be available as ebooks within the next six months. The need to enter the market of ebooks is not based on any real assessment of the market, but is more a desire to keep pace with a major development that’s happening all around the world.

At this point in time, the market for ebooks is not very big. But that it is the future of Indian publishing is something everyone is convinced about, even though printed books are here to stay, at least in the foreseeable future. In 2004, the Federation of Indian Publishers estimated the total number of books published in India at 82,537, out of which only 23 per cent were in English, and the rest in other Indian languages. In terms of per capita book title output, in the whole of India there were 8 titles per 100,000 population and in English 23 titles per 100,000 English speakers.[1] These figures are pretty dismal, but there is a lot of scope for growth, especially because internet penetration is only at 10 per cent.[2] So printed books will remain the key medium of content distribution.

It is believed that ebooks will make life easier for publishers. Eventually, paper and printing costs will drastically go down because there will be less demand for printed copies. Speculating on how many copies to print will no longer be a topic for discussion as print-on-demand increasingly becomes the norm. Processes like stock keeping and warehousing will change since there will be no need to store books. This will also lead to reduction in overall costs including costs of maintaining distribution channels for physical books, as well as sales and marketing costs because these will not be undertaken in the same way for ebooks.

One of the other draws of ebook publishing is that publishers hope to be able to reach those consumers that they couldn’t earlier. Thomas Abraham, Managing Director of Hachette-India says, “The books that go into Crossword and Landmark bookstores are still subject to somebody coming in and seeing them, whatever marketing you might do. But if this becomes a norm, some reader in a small town like Meerut who has no access to a bookshop can still look [a book] up.” This will also happen at a much faster rate as the time taken to produce an ebook is relatively less than a physical book.

The current publishing model in India is not without it problems due to high-street retailing and increased discounts demanded by distributors and retailers, and so publishers feel they have little choice but to explore the ebooks market as well. However, no one is expecting that all this will happen miraculously in a day, a month or even a year. Publishers believe that it will take at least five to ten years before anything becomes clear. “What is completely indisputable is that there’s no chance that this’ll be anything but the way forward,” says Abraham.

While Indian publishers have felt the pressure to enter the ebooks market for some time now, they have been dragging their feet over it. As with everything related to the Indian demographics, this too has been for varied reasons. One major problem has been the lack of a substantial readership base. English-language publishing in India is a niche market and there’s a perception that people above a certain age will not give up their printed copies and bother to learn a new technology. Even among the younger generation, who it is assumed would be more receptive to a new technology, there are die-hard book fans for whom holding a book in their hands is a charm and who may not be easily persuaded to make the shift to ebooks. Moreover, there is hardly any technical support for other Indian languages, which drastically cuts down on the readership. It is hard to offer content for different languages on a lot of devices and most Indian publishers have historically not looked at the internet as a medium to deliver content. There is also no adequate internet connectivity and penetration. To find and download ebooks, one needs a good broadband connection, which is still a dream in many parts of India that don’t even have a telephone line. Some publishers, like Pratham Books, a not-for-profit publisher, will continue to be driven by print books because of this reality. Because, as Gautam John, New Projects Manager, Pratham Books, says, “that’s the way to get a book to the last child of India. Our focus is to provide content for children who have no content.”

Dearth of online bookstores is also cited as a reason for the slow growth. Before Flipkart and Amazon decided to enter the market, there were no big players. Amazon too was waiting for foreign direct investment (FDI) approval to make an entry in India. (Though India encourages foreign investments, foreign companies have to seek permission from the government of India to enter the market.) Cost is an issue on many levels. From the consumer’s perspective, ereaders are expensive – a Kindle costs upwards from US$ 79 and India’s Pi reader costs upwards from Rs 9,999. A book buyer will not want to buy a device to buy a book, especially if a printed copy is available at the same price (in the Kindle Store, a paperback copy of Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is priced at US$ 5.39 and a Kindle ebook at US$ 5). For the publisher, there are huge costs involved in investing in the new technology – for instance, converting text into electronic format, digitally housing and maintaining content, employing people with the appropriate technical experience, and marketing costs in the digital space. Plus royalties for ebooks are considerably higher: where for printed books it is between 5 and 10 per cent, for ebooks it is at 20 per cent.

India has always been very receptive to new technological developments and very fast to adapt and develop it for the Indian market. It is interesting that while debates have been going on around ebooks and even before ebooks became available, India had already developed ereaders for them. Pi by Infibeam and Wink by E.C. Media were both launched in 2010 providing support for not just English but also a few Indian languages. But neither managed to gain much popularity, perhaps due to the inability to convince publishers to part with the content, pricing of the ereaders, and lack of a brand awareness.

One would assume that copyright infringement, commonly also known as “piracy”, would also be a concern with publishers. Many studies and newspaper reports on epublishing in India make a mention of it.[3] But this is something that publishers whom I spoke to didn’t seem too worried about. They are banking on digital rights management to take care of this problem to a large extent.

Ironically, publishers also believe that piracy is not something that can be stopped, and anyone with the intention of ripping off an ebook will do so anyway, DRMs or no DRMs. So then, the question that begs answering is: what are the DRMs actually for? As a head of a top publishing house in India put it, “DRMs are there to keep the honest users honest.” That is, the average book buyer who legally purchases legitimate copies of ebooks from legitimate online bookstores.

In this paper I will focus on digital rights management (DRM) as a technology whose full implications are not known and need to be studied in depth before Indian publishers decide how to negotiate them. I will be talking about what DRM is, how it works, and the concerns surrounding it in terms of how they affect book buyers, publishers and online bookstores. I will do this with the help of interviews conducted with heads of publishing houses and online bookstores, authors and ebook buyers, and secondary sources that are listed at the end of this paper. 

What is Digital Rights Management?

Digital rights management (DRM) refers to protecting ownership/copyright of electronic content by restricting what actions an authorized recipient may take in regard to that content. DRM gives digital-content publishers the ability to securely distribute high-value content such as periodicals, books, photographs, educational material, video, and research and to control the use of that content, preventing unauthorized distribution.[4]

DRMs are used mainly in music, videos, computers, mobile phones, games and ebooks. In terms of ebooks, this means that readers have certain restrictions on the way they can use the ebook that they have bought:
  • They cannot copy/paste content from the ebook.
  • They cannot make a copy.
  • They cannot print it.
  • They cannot lend it.
  • They cannot move it from one device (ereader, tablet, mobile phone, PC) to another (for example, from a Kindle to a Nook), or can only move it to a specified number of devices.
  • They can download the ebook only a certain number of times.
  • They cannot use the text to speech software to have it read aloud.
  • They cannot buy ebooks in or of a particular territory.

Each publisher and online bookstore has its own set of DRMs, which may enforce all or some of these aforementioned restrictions. Although DRMs come in many different forms, they usually have four common stages:

Packaging: When DRM encryption keys are built right into the software, that is, the ebook file.
Distribution: When DRM-encrypted files are delivered to the buyers. This is usually through web server downloads, CDs/DVDs, or via files emailed to the buyers. In the case of ebooks, currently only web server downloads are available.
Licence serving: When specialised servers authenticate legitimate buyers through the internet, and allow them to access the DRM files. They can even lock the files when illegitimate users try to open or copy them.
Licence acquisition: When legitimate buyers acquire their encryption keys so they can unlock their files.

As mentioned earlier, content providers believe that DRMs are the only way to prevent copyright infringement and thus protect revenue generation. “Without DRM, many publishers wouldn’t even think of making [printed books] available as ebooks,” says P.M. Sukumar, CEO, HarperCollins-India. It is believed that with DRMs, it will not be easy to disperse content to the world at large without retailers and publishers knowing about it. Abraham says: “Digital policing is relatively easier actually… And the average reader is not out to break DRM, so it’s not so much a question of piracy or copyright infringement unless somebody’s deliberately out to break DRM and put a book up for free.”

How Do DRMs Work?

This is what Adobe, manufacturers of Content Server DRM software, say:

Effective DRM technologies work by allowing distributors of electronic content to control viewing access to the content – whether printed matter, music, or images – with some form of customized encryption. Individual “keys” for viewing or listening to the content are provided to an end user who has purchased rights, which generally include limitations on copying, printing, and redistribution.

When a prospective owner of digital rights downloads a content file, DRM software checks the user’s identity, contacts a financial clearinghouse to arrange payment, decrypts the file, and assigns a key – such as a password – for future access. The publisher of the content can configure access in numerous ways. For example, a document might be viewable but not printable, or may only be used for a limited time.

On the back end, things get even more complex. Once access rights and mechanisms have been assigned to a user, distributors must ensure that everyone in the creation, production, and distribution process gets paid fairly for use of the content. End-to-end software solutions, such as the MetaTrust Utility from InterTrust, track payments all the way from the online credit-card transaction to the royalty checks being deposited in the author or artist’s account....

Most DRM experts agree that the best rights systems combine software and hardware access mechanisms. By tying access rights directly to computer CPUs, hard drives, or other storage media, publishers can control not only who is reading the information but also on what device. This level of protection is important for highly sensitive documents such legal documents or proprietary market research, where illegal copying and sharing could result in substantial damages.[5]

There are many types of DRM systems but the three major ones that are currently being used are: Amazon, which uses an adaptation of the Mobipocket encryption; Apple’s DRM, which is called FairPlay; and and then there is the Adobe Content Server. Amazon and Apple use their own DRM systems, and most other retailers and distributors use Adobe’s. In India, both E.C. Media and Infibeam, who developed their own ereaders, Wink and Pi respectively, also use Adobe’s DRM. Flipkart, who will be launching its ebooks portal soon, will also need to have a DRM software in place. Whether they use Adobe’s or develop their own proprietary DRM remains to be seen.

There are other options to DRM that are sometimes known as social DRM, which involves watermarking each ebook at the time it is bought with the identity of the buyer. These ebooks can be used across any platform, but if they are uploaded to a file-sharing website, one should be able to identify the purchaser. The idea behind this is not to restrict the use of content but to shame the customer who puts it to illegal use.   

The History of DRMs

There is agreement all around that a creator of a work should get credit for it. Some creators may desire monetary compensation too. And hence, there is the need to “protect copy”, which translates into digital rights management for content available on the internet. But where did DRM come from?

The idea of DRM is not a new one. It has a fairly long and chequered history, but there have been some key landmarks in the copy-protection timeline that have gone a long way in shaping the debate on DRM today.

Many of the floppy disks that we used once upon a time, for instance, were copy protected. Even when music and video CDs and DVDs came into the market, there was a limit on how many copies one could make, and CDs came with bits of information to confuse music ripping software.

Film studios were some of the first large companies to adopt DRM. When the DVD format was launched, it included an encryption called Content Scrambling System that prevented users from making digital copies of films. CSS DRM, however, was very soon broken by DeCSS, a tool developed for that purpose. Recording labels also adopted DRM to prevent copying.

In 1998, in the US, an amendment to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act criminalised the production and distribution of technology – like DeCSS – that would allow consumers to thwart technical copy-restriction methods. Essentially, it became a crime to circumvent anti-piracy measures, and to manufacture, sell or distribute code-cracking devices used to illegally copy software.

But things really came to a head in 1999, when Napster, a peer-to-peer file sharing internet service, made its debut. People were suddenly able to duplicate and share music with an almost countless number of users so that they could download numerous songs and albums for free.

Then came the Sony rootkit scandal in 2005, when Sony BMG Music Entertainment deliberately included malware on their music CDs that would report back to them if their CDs were played on computers instead of CD players. Attempting to remove the rootkit even caused many machines to fail. After much public and media criticism, Sony released a software tool to remove the rootkit and exchanged the infected CDs.

In the ebook world, in 2011, HarperCollins announced that the licence for new e-book titles purchased by libraries would expire after 26 checkouts. This meant that libraries would have to purchase another copy of the book that they’ve already bought after it has been borrowed 26 times. Librarians weren’t very happy about it.

I’ve only mentioned a few milestones in the history of DRMs. There are of course many, many more. 

The Real Story Behind DRMs

Book Buyers’ Bane

DRMs are a topic of much debate in the West these days and have led to many controversies. The idea of copyright itself is being questioned by the copyleft and the free culture movement, who object to the highly restrictive copyright laws, which they believe hinder creativity. But that’s a topic for another paper.

Richard Stallman’s 1997 short story “The Right to Read” foreshadows where DRMs might lead us some day. It is a cautionary tale set in the year 2047:

This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her—but if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong—something that only pirates would do.

And there wasn't much chance that the SPA—the Software Protection Authority—would fail to catch him. In his software class, Dan had learned that each book had a copyright monitor that reported when and where it was read, and by whom, to Central Licensing. (They used this information to catch reading pirates, but also to sell personal interest profiles to retailers.) The next time his computer was networked, Central Licensing would find out. He, as computer owner, would receive the harshest punishment—for not taking pains to prevent the crime.[6]

Some believe that this is already a “dreaded, insane reality”.[7]

Let’s look at the various DRMs mentioned earlier and their implications for book buyers.

Copy/paste and print: If a buyer wants to copy/paste or print a few passages from a book and use them as references or quotes in an article or paper they are writing, they can’t.

Make a copy: Computers and hard disk failures have taught us that we should back up all our data. DRM does not allow that. Which means if a reader loses their ebook to a computer crash, they have to buy another copy or resort to obtaining an illegal one. Gautam John of Pratham says: “There is no way for anyone to guarantee that these DRM systems will work five, ten, fifteen years from now. And if they don’t work, the piece of content that I bought is broken and you can’t read it any more.... If I buy a book, I can read it 50 or 100 years from now, as long as the physical condition of the book is okay, and there’s no reason to degrade that experience if it’s digital.”

Lend or move from one device to another: The buyer is not allowed to share the ebook with anyone – not friends, not family – on their devices. Most big retailers, like Amazon and Apple, have their own DRM systems and others use Adobe’s, which only allows books to be opened on the Adobe Digital Editions software. In this situation, moving ebooks from one device to another is in some cases not possible. For example, a Kindle book cannot be transferred to Nook or vice versa. Even if one is allowed to move to a specific number of devices, it may not work the way one wants it to. Many Kindle customers have complained that even after removing an ebook from a device, they haven’t been able to put it in another.

Number of downloads: Retailers also limit the number of downloads. Some allow only one download, which means that if the buyer loses that ebook, the only choice is to buy the book again (or obtain it illegally). For instance, Attano in India, who are ironically selling ebooks produced under the Creative Commons licence by Pratham, allows only the one download.

Reading aloud: Not allowing an ebook to be read aloud is a significant barrier for many people, including the visually impaired. Though there might be audiobooks available, it means that these customers do not have a say in choosing a format and have to go with the more expensive ‘option’ of audiobooks. For example, on Amazon, a Kindle ebook may cost US$ 5 while an audiobook will cost around US$ 23.

Territorial restrictions: If a reader wants to buy a Kindle ebook published in the UK, for example, they can’t. This can be frustrating for book lovers in countries like India, where the ebook market is still at a very nascent stage. Nilanjana Roy, journalist and literary critic, says: “The problem for the Indian reader is different: buying ebooks is an exercise in frustration, a return to the bad old days of socialism when everything you really wanted was tantalizingly displayed in the window of a shop to which you had no entry.”[8] Another example is the iBookstore, which in India only allows users access to free ebooks that are out of copyright.

Looking at the above, for all intents and purposes, unlike a physical book, an ebook only gives buyers an illusion of ownership, even though they pay a premium price for it, many times at par with the physical book. Amazon, in its terms and conditions, clearly states: “Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.” “Digital Content” is obviously ebooks and “Content Provider” is Amazon. One wonders how long it will be before more book buyers realise that ebooks with DRMs are not just an annoyance but that one never actually owns them like one does physical books; that buying a printed book gives one more privileges than a DRM-locked ebook. And then, how long will it take them to reach the logical conclusion that procuring an ebook illegally is simpler than buying one?

As if dealing with DRMs isn’t enough of a bother for book buyers, now they also have to hunt for information on whether a particular book has DRMs or not. Online retailers often make it hard for book buyers by not clearly mentioning the kind of DRMs they have on the ebooks hosted on their site. Since each publisher has its own demands on the kinds of restrictions that they want to put on their ebooks, these can vary from strict to easy to DRM-free. It took me a good two hours to find the terms and conditions for Kindle and ebooks users on Amazon’s site. This is what it said in terms of the use of ebooks:

Upon your download of Digital Content and payment of any applicable fees (including applicable taxes), the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Other Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use…. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove or modify any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.[9]

There is no clear mention of what the ‘security features’ are in terms of printing, copying, copy/pasting, number of downloads, reading aloud or number of devices.

A customer on the Kindle Forum on Amazon’s site complained:

I’m furious that Amazon is no longer indicating which books have DRM and which don’t. (Use to be listed as “Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited” meant no DRM but Amazon has removed this category.

With this new policy, now authors have to list “DRM free” or “no DRM” in their titles or product descriptions to assure customers that they are not paying for a DRM-crippled product. (I say paying for, not buying, because if your product is disabled and controlled by DRM, you didn’t “buy” it.)

I don’t buy DRM books or music. I like reading on my Linux PC...and yet Amazon refuses to support it. I will stick to buying from Smashwords.com and Baen.com (which are no DRM stores) until Amazon gets their act together on this issue.[10]

An Indian reader I interviewed said: “I considered DRM a pain, but saw no other way to get some books I needed. Once, some books I had bought from one well-known ebook vendor became unreadable after a while; I was told by the vendor that the particular form of DRM had been withdrawn (or something like that) and I was given the books in another format. I had to download the stuff again. Another time, when I switched laptops (which means downloading all books again), some books of a particular format became unreadable; I followed the instructions carefully for installation and activation and stuff, but nothing worked. I then wrote to the vendor asking for help, but my queries remained unanswered. Those ebooks remain lost to me.”

The scariest part of all this is that it puts control in the hands of those who put DRMs in the ebooks. They know what the customer’s reading habits are, what books are there in their library, how many times they have read it, how many pages they’ve read, how many devices it’s on, and much more. I’m going to quote Amazon’s terms and conditions here one more time just because it took me so long to find them:

The Software will also provide Amazon with information related to the Digital Content on your Kindle and Other Devices and your use of it (such as last page read and content archiving). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make using your Kindle or Reading Application and other information you provide may be stored on servers that are located outside the country in which you live.

Not just this, online retailers also have the power to remotely delete books from devices. This happened when Amazon deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from their customers’ devices. Many called this action Orwellian.[11] The customers were refunded their money and the reason given was that a third party had added those books to Amazon’s site when they had no right to do so. Did Amazon have the right to delete these books remotely? If these were physical copies, would they have gone to people’s homes and shredded those books? The issue is not whether the reason to delete those books is valid, but about whose rights were actually violated and how much power and control can a bookstore exercise on its customers, and whether it can ever remain a one-off thing like Amazon claims. 

Do DRMs Really Stop Copyright Infringement?

Breaking DRMs is not that hard. As mentioned earlier, there are many DRM technologies used with ebooks, the most common being Amazon’s, Adobe’s and Apple’s. All of these have been broken. Even if one doesn’t use DRM removal tools, it is just as easy to retype the whole book, or to use screenshots or scans to create images that can be converted into text by OCR software.

While publishers believe that DRM is necessary to stop unauthorised use, they are not convinced themselves that this will actually stop piracy. “As for copyright infringement, that is already happening,” says P.M. Sukumar, CEO, HarperCollins-India. “There are people in Pakistan and China who scan the books and post it as a PDF on the internet. It’s not as if by introducing ebooks you are precipitating a new problem. It’s a problem that already exists.” Echoing this view, Ravi Mehar, Sales Manager, Cambridge University Press, India, says, “Even if DRMs are in place, piracy will continue.”

What DRM can do is prevent “accidental infringement”, that is, lending a book to a friend or a family member, or creating a back-up copy for safety, or even printing a few pages for personal use. But can one really call this copyright infringement? Why would any book lover want to deliberately break copyright law after having legally purchased their ebook? They know it’s not right to create many copies of the book and distribute it. Is it really illegal for them to move their ebook from one ereader to another? Is it unreasonable to create a back-up for safekeeping? These are the questions that book buyers in India will soon be asking too once they directly run into the problems that DRMs seem to bring with them.

As Gautam John points out: “The tools and technology required to consume digital content are the same tools and technologies and channels that allow people to communicate and share. It’s impossible to believe one will happen in the absence of the other. And if you are going to try and build the model that depends on one side of the tools and technology to get them access to that content and deprive them of the tools and technology to share and converse about that content, it’s doomed to fail.”

In fact, the real reason behind piracy is the lack of convenient access to content that is desirable at a price that is reasonable. Why, then, does the emerging ebooks market in India believe that DRM will be their saviour?

Why DRMs then?

Not just publishers, but online retailers, too, believe that DRM will not stop copyright infringement. They feel that no DRM manufacturer in the world can claim that their DRM software is un-crackable, and those who are hell bent on getting digital content for free will do so, no matter what.

So, if copyright infringement already exists and DRMs are not the solution, then why are publishers and online bookstores so keen on them?

Since it is the publishers and not the retailers who decide pricing for books, stores use it as a tool to prevent customers from buying ebooks from other competing stores. They lock in the buyer to their store through their DRM software so that the buyer cannot go anywhere else. For example, someone who purchases a Kindle book, can either view the book on the Kindle or the Kindle apps developed for PCs or Macs or mobile phones. They cannot read it on Pi or Wink or Nook readers.

If a customer wants to leave Amazon and move to another retailer, they have to leave behind all the ebooks purchased from Amazon because they won’t open on any ereaders that don’t support the Amazon app. This means that the customer would have to re-buy all the books that they have already paid good money to get.

In India, given that Flipkart has developed its own app for the digital music on their site, one could conjecture that it will follow the same model for ebooks as well. And since Indian publishers have been insisting on various levels of DRMs for their ebooks, in all likelihood Flipkart’s apps will be the only platform which would decrypt the ebook files and make them readable for ebooks downloaded from their site.

For publishers, DRM is a way to reassure authors – who are their bread and butter – that their work will not be pirated. Many publishers believe that authors will be in favour of DRMs. Sukumar says: “The author basically knows that the publisher has similar interests as the author. The author also wants to maximise sales and revenues from the commercial exploitation of the book. I don’t see any conflict or problem there.”

Some authors are only too happy letting publishers handle all of this so that they can get on with the business of writing. Natasha Sharma, author of Icky Yucky Mucky (Young Zubaan) says: “I would be happy to leave it to the publisher.... An opinion taken is fine, but if there’s a disagreement, I don’t know how much I would have the overall capability, time and bandwidth to look into it.”

But there are others who feel they want to be involved in the decision about the kinds of DRMs set on their books. When asked whether she would like to have a say, Payal Dhar, author of the Shadow in Eternity (Young Zubaan) trilogy said: “Yes. I would go so far as to say that I wouldn’t go with a publisher who has very strict DRMs. I’m more concerned with more people reading my books than DRM.”

Some publishers, too, feel that authors should have a say. Gautam John of Pratham says: “I think the author should have a complete say because at the end of the day I believe that it has a direct bearing on how many people will get to read their content. So I certainly believe that an author should have complete control over whether their book goes out with DRM or without DRM.”

Some publishers and authors are also under the impression that DRMs will lead to an increase in sales by preventing copyright infringement. But there is no evidence that shows that this would actually happen. In fact, studies that are available are mostly contradictory or from questionable sources. As mentioned earlier, DRM controls allow publishers to set all kinds of restrictions on ebook buyers, who are then forced to re-buy books if they lose them when their hard drives fail or when the number of downloads expire or when they want to move from one ebook reading device to another.

The fear that authors have of their work being stolen is very valid, and DRMs are used as a tool to allay it. But in the real world, DRMs don’t work. All they do is make it harder for book lovers to read an author’s work. They may make an author some extra money through the re-buying of books, but it could just as well reduce sales by frustrating buyers. Lack of DRMs will not increase piracy. What will increase it is when books start to cost more because of the pricing models employed by publishers and online stores due these controls.

What DRMs will also do is wipe out online independent bookstores, who do not have the finance or infrastructure to have DRM technologies. Needless to say, this will increase the monopoly of the big players, and lead to further control and hike in prices.

DRMs and Copyright Law in India

The Copyright Act, 1954, was the first post-independence copyright legislation passed in India. This Act is compliant with most international conventions and treaties in the field of copyright, such as the Berne Convention, the Universal Copyright Convention and the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The Copyright Act was amended many times, and one of the important amendments came in 1994, which provided protection to digital technology sectors. It contained the rights of copyright holders, rentals of software, temporary back-up copies and sanctions for infringement, including the making or distribution of copies of software without proper or specific authorisation.

Till recently, international copyright law was based on the Berne Convention and the TRIPS agreement. But since 1974, most of these have been managed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a UN Agency. In 2010, more amendments were proposed to the Indian Copyright Act to bring India in compliance with WIPO Internet Treaties, which require adoption of anti-circumvention provisions, that is, to legally stop people from circumventing DRMs. India has included this provision in the bill but “only to the extent considered desirable and necessary”.[12]
DRM anti-circumvention provisions in the WIPO internet treaties are flexible, and allow countries great freedom in law making, something that India’s new amendments take advantage of. The proposed amendment says that bypassing DRM “with the intention of infringing” copyright is illegal, but if that’s not the intent, then it’s all right. The Bill also does not address devices and software that make such bypassing possible, so those would remain legal.

But anti-DRM campaigners in India believe that since India is not a signatory to the WIPO treaties, there is no need for compliance with anti-circumvention provisions. They believe that any sort of DRM will allow copyright holders to restrict access to digital media or software under terms that would be permissible under current copyright law, like backing up a file. Including this provision means that copyright holders will be allowed to enforce their own copyright terms on digital media or software that they produce, terms that are not in accordance with the current Indian Copyright Act.

There has been a lot of pressure from the US government on India to sign and ratify the WIPO internet treaties. They have also put India, along with Pakistan and China, on the “intellectual property watch list” for failing to prevent copyright theft. This list is part of the annual “Special 301” report on the adequacy and effectiveness of US trading partners’ protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights.

The US wants India to do what they did with their own Digital Millennium Copyright Act and make all DRM circumvention a crime. India’s reluctance to do so may not be clear, but even if the Bill is passed, one hopes that there is enough scope there for Indian book buyers to not be penalised for their ridiculous desires to use their ebooks like normal printed books. [13]


The debate on DRM is hotting up in the West. Many organisations and individuals are opposed to it, and a major campaign by the Free Software Foundation, called Defective by Design, even declared 4 May as the Day Against DRM. They believe that DRM stymies creativity and innovation, and competition, that it is a violation of consumer rights and privacy, and that all existing DRM technologies fail to adequately make concessions for fair use and restrict the legal use of content.

They also believe that “digital rights management” is a misnomer and that it should be called “digital restrictions management”. Many publishers have also gone DRM-free due to public demand. Tor/Forge, the science fiction and fantasy books imprint of Macmillan in the UK have decided to go completely DRM-free by July 2012. Cory Doctorow, journalist, science-fiction author and co-editor of the weblog BoingBoing hails this as “the beginning of the end of DRM”.
But in India, publishers believe that in the current scenario, it would be difficult to survive without DRMs. “If it’s the beginning of the end of DRM, then it’ll also be the beginning of the end of publishing,” says Sukumar of HarperCollins. “If there is no monetary compensation for somebody to take three years, five years, ten years to write a book, and it is going to be freely available for anybody around the world, why would that person ever bother to sit down and write another book?”

Thomas Abraham of Hachette feels that for a niche market like SFF, DRM-free ebooks may work, but “I would still think that if it’s a Vikram Seth or something, where you’ve paid a very high advance, you would want to get the mileage of every sale – by language and territory.” But then, if publishers are worried that no DRMs will eat into the sales of more popular authors, there is also J.K. Rowling who decided to keep the Potter books on Pottermore DRM-free when they were released in March 2012, and got three million “pupils” who enrolled at Hogwarts.

Will the absence of DRM really kill the publishing industry? If one were to take a lesson from the history of digital music, one would say that it’s unlikely. When Napster was shut down in 2001 because of accusations of mass copyright infringement, it left a void in the online music market. In 2003, Apple entered the market with its iTunes music store and imposed the FairPlay DRM on its music. After that, when Amazon entered the music market, it came in DRM-free and it’s pricing was also better than iTunes. In the face of tough competition, in early 2009, iTunes, too, went completely DRM-free.

Flipkart in India, when they launched their Flyte music store earlier this year, too decided to keep their content DRM-free and their prices reasonable (one can download a song for a price as low as Rs 6). Despite not having invested much in advertising and publicity, the music store is said to be delivering 8,000 downloads a day.[14]

Since this is the beginning of a journey into the world of ebooks for Indian publishers, it would be prudent to draw some lessons from the history of DRMs in the West. To realise that DRMs are more destructive to their business than useful. That imposing restrictions lead to more violations. That placing trust in their customers will go a long way towards achieving their goals of better business and building a community of happy book lovers. As author Payal Dhar rightly points out: “People don’t buy books saying: ‘Ok let me buy this book, then I’m going to rip it off, sell it and make money.’ People usually buy books to read.”

*   Disclaimer: This report mainly focuses on English language publishing in India

[1] http://prayatna.typepad.com/publishing/2007/10/book-title-outp.html
[2] http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm#asia
[4] Noakes-Fry, October 2000, quoted in “Digital Rights Management Overview” by Austin Russ, Sans Institute Reading Room, 2001.
[5]  Ibid.
[6] The Right to Read” by Richard Stallman, in Communications of the ACM, February, 1997.
[7] From http://falkvinge.net/2011/06/03/stallmans-the-right-to-read-becomes-dreaded-insane-reality/.
[8] Divide-and-Rule: The DRM Effect” by Nilanjana Roy, Business Standard, May, 2012.
[9] http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/?&nodeId=200506200
[10] http://www.amazon.com/forum/kindle?_encoding=UTF8&cdForum=Fx1D7SY3BVSESG&cdThread=Tx38IVR5N7WI40B
[11] http://boingboing.net/2009/07/20/amazons-orwellian-de.html
[12] http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Copyright%20Act/The%20Copyright%20Bill%202010.pdf
[13] This paper was written before the Copyright (Amendment) Bill, 2010 was passed in both houses of Parliament in May 2012.
[14] http://www.financialexpress.com/news/flipkart-to-start-selling-ebooks-to-take-on-rivals/948858/0

The author, Shweta Vachani, is a senior editor at Zubaan handling digital development and also the Poster Women project, a digital archive of the visual history of the women's movement in India. 

blog comments powered by Disqus