“Why I break DRM on e-books”: A publishing exec speaks out

Calls for big-six publishers to drop DRM have increased in recent weeks, coinciding with the DOJ price-fixing lawsuit. Many observers fear that the lawsuit will actually reduce competition in the e-book marketplace by cementing Amazon’s (s AMZN) role as the dominant player — and they wonder whether DRM is simply another weapon in Amazon’s arsenal, keeping customers locked to the Kindle Store.

Here at paidContent, independent e-bookstore Emily Books‘ Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have argued that DRM is crushing indie booksellers online. And Hachette VP, digital Maja Thomas recently described DRM as “a speedbump” that “doesn’t stop anyone from pirating.”

Still, it may be a long way from this discussion to the first big-six publisher’s actual removal of DRM from its e-books. For now, many readers know they can download free tools to let them read a Barnes & Noble (s BKS) Nook book on a Kindle, or an Apple (s AAPL) iBookstore book on a Nook, or a Google (s GOOG) book on a Kobo. I’ve used these tools. I recently bought a Google e-book from an independent bookstore, broke the DRM and converted it to read on my Kindle.

Recently, I began chatting with a publishing industry executive about this. This person — who I’ll call Exec — was interested in learning how to break DRM on e-books. About a month later, Exec is a convert and was ready to talk about the experience, albeit anonymously. I don’t think Exec is the only person in the publishing industry breaking DRM on e-books they buy…and those who aren’t doing so already might want to give it a try, if only to see what readers go through. Here is Exec’s story.

I was coming to the conclusion that I wanted to start breaking DRM on e-books I bought so that I could read them on any e-reader, but what pushed me over the top was a terrific post from science-fiction author Charlie Stross, “Cutting their own throats.” He argues that DRM is a way for the Amazons of the world to create lock-in to their platforms.

By that point, I had purchased several dozen e-books from Amazon, and thanks to the fact that Amazon has Kindle apps for all major platforms I didn’t feel all that locked in. But what happens when Amazon decides not to support a platform? Or what if it rolls out new features on Kindle e-readers but doesn’t make those features available on the Kindle apps?

I had also bought an e-book from Apple and quickly realized the options there were even more limited. You’ll probably never see an iBooks app for Android, for example. I decided it was time for me to take control and not let the retailer lock me in.

I had thought about breaking DRM before, but had never done so. A key reason why I didn’t is that I want to honor the IP rights of publishers. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized: I bought the book, and now I want to be able to read it on any device I choose.

I want to be clear about how I’ve been using these unlocked books. I’m not sharing them with anyone. They’re all just for my use. I’m not putting them on a torrent, or even sharing them with family or friends.

I believe this is justified because I realize that when I buy an e-book from Amazon, I’m really buying a license to that content, not the content itself. This is ridiculous, by the way. I feel as if e-book retailers are simply hiding behind that philosophy as a way to further support DRM and scare publishers away from considering a DRM-free world. I’m not going to say where I work, or anything about my company, but I will say that I don’t think DRM is good for the publisher, author or customer. Don’t pro-DRM publishers realize this is one of the key complaints from their customers? I’ve heard plenty of customers tell me that e-book prices need to be low because they’re only buying access to the content, not fully owning it. That needs to change.

The actual process of breaking the DRM was pretty easy. There are plenty of how-to resources that are only a Google search away from you. I’ve now unlocked books from both Amazon and Apple, and I ran into minor hiccups with both. But a bit of digging online and help from a trusted friend got me through it. Now I can read those books on any device I want to. My advice to newbies is to not give up. If you run into a problem, look around and I bet you’ll find the answer online. I think most readers would be able to do this easily. It just requires a bit of detective work and not giving up if you hit a roadblock.

Do I feel “evil”? No, not really. If I was giving these books away, I would, but I’m the only person using them.

I’m not aware of any other publishers who are doing this. Then again, I’m sure anyone who is would like to keep that confidential, just like me. And I think publishers should try it out so that they can see just how much of a waste DRM is. In about 15 minutes, anyone can unlock just about any e-book out there.

A month or so in, breaking DRM has become a regular part of my e-reading experience. I don’t even think twice now whether I can only read this book on that platform. They’re all options for me. I plan to unlock every book I buy from now on.