Tor drops DRM from e-books, unlocking digital controls


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On Tuesday, Tom Doherty Associates, the science-fiction focused division of Macmillan that publishes Tor, Forge, Orb, Starscape and Tor Teen books, announced plans to drop DRM from all of its e-books by July of 2012. That means its e-books no longer will contain the digital controls that limit sharing and distribution. It was big, surprising news: DRM is the way publishers prevent piracy.

Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But DRM doesn’t necessarily prevent piracy, while it does create obstacles to sharing legitimately purchased e-books among devices.


“Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time,” president and publisher Tom Doherty said in the announcement. “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”

We’re not just talking about crazed teenage book pirates -- even publishing executives have broken the DRM on their e-books for the convenience of reading them via multiple devices.

John Scalzi, who is published by Tor, supported his publisher’s action on his blog:

As an author, I haven’t seen any particular advantage to DRM-laden eBooks; DRM hasn’t stopped my books from being out there on the dark side of the Internet. Meanwhile, the people who do spend money to support me and my writing have been penalized for playing by the rules. The books of mine they have bought have been chained to a single eReader, which means if that eReader becomes obsolete or the retailer goes under (or otherwise arbitrarily changes their user agreement), my readers risk losing the works of mine they’ve bought. I don’t like that. So the idea that my readers will, after July, “buy once, keep anywhere,” makes me happy.

He’s further reassured that Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor of Tor Books, has promised Tor will continue to use other means to fight piracy -- tracking down those who seek to illegitimately share copies of e-books by uploading them to shared servers and other means.

At BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow sees Tor’s DRM-free move as a watershed moment for moving publishing away from DRM. He might be right, but then he proposes this scenario: ‘I’d expect someone to make a browser plugin that draws a ‘Buy this book at’ button on Amazon pages (and vice-versa), which then facilitates auto-conversion between the formats.’ Sounds to me like futurism turned utopianism -- not that there’s anything wrong with that, but just because we can dream it doesn’t mean we will see it.


Most industry observers agree that Tor’s move might mark a turning point in how major publishers deal with DRM, and expect other divisions to follow Tor’s lead. Exactly what that will mean -- for e-book readers, publishers, and booksellers large and small -- remains uncertain.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg