Divide-and-rule: the DRM effect

(Published in the Business Standard, May 2012)

A ferry crossing on a quiet Goan river is the perfect time to contemplate the advantages and disadvantages of ebooks for an Indian reader. The advantages rest in my backpack, where the twenty or so books on the week’s reading list reside in my Kindle, part of a growing portable library.

Unless I drop the Kindle into the Calvim River, I could theoretically spend the next three months in Goa and never need to visit a bookshop. For readers like me, or for the average business traveler, the ability to carry around our libraries is a significant advantage.

So far, though, the ebook market in India has been as sleepy as the placid Goan backwaters, except for a relatively tiny number of early users. This is not for a lack of potential readership, or for lack of Internet access—retail giant Flipkart has proved, for instance, that a huge number of readers will buy books online if they are guaranteed safe delivery and enough choice.

Though the difference between the physical book and the book is often raised as a major deterrent, this hasn’t proved to be the case in equally sophisticated markets elsewhere. As the rise of ebook sales in countries from the UK to Canada, South Korea to China, demonstrates, the initial resistance to reading on a device melts away once readers discover the ease and convenience of ebooks.

A few purists lament the loss of beautiful typography and the feel of paper, but you only have to browse the average bookstore to see how few physical books are designed and printed with love. The mass-market paperback is not a thing of beauty; it is as functional as the average ebook, and as unlovely. But with ebook sales rivaling and sometimes exceeding paperback sales in many cases, the ebook versus paper rivalry has had unexpected consequences.

In an effort to underline the uniqueness of the physical book, many publishing houses have begun placing more emphasis on well-designed books—at least for the most prominent literary books on their list. It’s just a matter of a time before publishing houses start exploring the many—and unusual—possibilities of ebook design.

There are already creative sites out there–Booktrack, for instance, does editions of Rushdie and Garcia Marquez novels with sound effects, and some of the indie publishing houses are focusing on creative typography, understanding instinctively that the ebook also opens up possibilities that the plain printed page can’t match.

The market for Kindles and dedicated ebook readers is tiny in India—but the market for tablets such as the iPad and the Galaxy Tab, which double as excellent reading devices, is both sizeable and growing. 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.

Most Indian publishers haven’t yet digitized their books—or haven’t digitized a significant percentage of their books, or don’t have an Amazon account—so most of the lost classics, drama, poetry, rare histories and biographies that you might want in ebook form are not available. Indian books in translation—which would make up the bulk of great Indian literature—are only sparsely available in ebook form from online retailers.

The global publishing industry’s insistence on DRM—digital rights management systems, which allow readers to access ebooks only in specific territory—has little impact on readers in the US or the UK. With large ebookstores and an ample selection, most US or UK readers have access to a far wider variety of books than do their counterparts in other territories, creating a kind of unofficial but deep-rooted system of digital inequality.

But for an Indian reader trying to buy ebooks legally, the reminder that you are part of a marketplace that carries over colonial inequalities is sharp. You will pay higher prices—given the dollar or pound exchange rate—in order to read some books. And because of DRM, even if you’re willing to pay higher prices, many ebooks will remain unavailable in India because of territorial copyright agreements.

Many of the arguments against DRM systems for ebooks have focused on the impractical nature of DRM. Because books, being essentially text files, are so much easier to pirate than other kinds of media, DRM is a barrier only for the law-abiding reader. The rest will switch to illegally downloaded books, benefitting neither author nor publisher.

But we rarely discuss the ways in which DRM continues to divide the world of books—and music, and films—into haves and have-nots. If you live in the First World, you are unlikely to realize how much greater your access is to world cinema and world literature, except for those writers who aren’t allowed in past the borders of Barnes & Noble or Amazon. If you live in the grey zone known as Elsewhere, you are unlikely to be allowed to forget how carelessly widespread the restrictions are on what you can read, and how much more you will be charged for the privilege of reading like a First-Worlder.

One might then argue that DRM functions as an unfair barrier. For readers and writers in many countries outside the West, the promise of ebooks was the promise of equal access—our writers could travel elsewhere, theirs could be read across borders. Instead, DRM sets up bristling electronic fences, dividing the world into territories of more and less privileged readers. Until these fences come down, the ebook market in India will remain a shriveled, bonsai version of what it could be.

I’m @twitter.com/nilanjanaroy





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