One of the hats I wear at Curtis Brown, besides my toupee, is that of an audio rights specialist. You know all those audiobooks your mom likes to listen to in the car? Well, those rights don’t just sell themselves, sweetie. Audiobooks are a continually growing business, and within that growing business, downloadable audio is a fast-growing part of the overall growing business.
So it was with a keen eye that I read in Publishers Lunch (subscription required) last week that Random House Audio has decided to move away from DRM in an attempt to expand the overall audio market.
Background. DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is software encryption intended to prevent piracy by limiting the use of an audio file. So, for instance, when you download a song or audiobook from iTunes, you can only transfer that song or audiobook to a certain number of devices. DRM is also used by library programs such as Overdrive to “check in” and “check out” electronic copies — literally you have to “check out” your audiobook to listen to it, and check it back in to the library before someone else can use it. Just like with a hard copy.
So basically DRM is intended to prevent piracy, by making it more difficult to reproduce a file endlessly, and to control usage, such as with Overdrive’s library program, to prevent free downloads from overwhelming the market.
But one perceived downside with DRM is that there are compatibility issues. For instance, most music downloaded on iTunes can only be played on Apple-compatible devices like iPods, and most music downloaded on, say, Overdrive can’t be played on iPods. Some people feel that this creates confusion and frustration in the marketplace, and many people I know continue to buy CDs simply because DRM annoys them and they want to be able to burn and share the CD without the hassle.
Fast forward to last week. Random House Audio Group publisher Madeline McIntosh announced in a letter: “The potential benefits of moving away from DRM are clear: it would allow the market to open up, so that any online retailer would be able to compete to sell content destined for any device, including the iPod. The hope is that the greatly-simplified consumer experience, coupled with greater retail competition, would lead to growth.”
However, Ms. McIntosh points out, “the risk is also clear.” While DRM was by no means a perfect encryption device, it did make it incrementally more difficult to pirate a digital file. It seems as if there would be a correspondingly incremental risk of increased piracy when people are downloading easily share-able files.
So put on your author/agent/consumer hats on and you tell me: Does the benefit of growing the overall audio market by eliminating consumer frustration/confusion, increasing competition, and making audio files universally compatible outweigh the risk of increased piracy? Would you make your work available DRM free? What if you were a bestselling author like J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown?