Friday, June 30, 2017

O'Reilly's Decision and its DRM Implication

On Wednesday, I got mail from Laura Baldwin, President of O'Reilly, announcing that "as of today, we are discontinuing fulfillment of individual book and video purchases on Books (both ebook and print) will still be available for sale via other digital and bricks-and-mortar retail channels...[and] of course, we will continue to publish books and videos..." So O'Reilly's not getting out of the book and video publishing business, it's just getting out of the business of selling them at retail. For details, check out Laura's blog entrythis story at Publishers Weekly or these discussions at Slashdot or Hacker News.

To me, the most interesting implication of this announcement is that O'Reilly's no-DRM policy apparently resonated little with the market. Other technical publishers I'm familiar with (e.g., Addison-Wesley, the Pragmatic Programmer, Artima) attempt to discourage illegal dissemination of copyrighted material (e.g., books in digital form) by at least stamping the buyer's name on each page. O'Reilly went the other way, trusting people who bought its goods not to give them to their friends or colleagues or to make them available on the Internet.

I don't know what motivated that policy. Perhaps it was a belief that trusting buyers was the right thing to do. But I can't help but think they took into account the effect it would likely have on sales. After all, publishing is a business.

Piracy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means you receive no compensation for the benefit readers get from the work you put in. On the other hand, pirated books act as implicit marketing, expanding awareness of you and your book(s). They can also reach buyers who want to see the full product before making a purchasing decision or who wouldn't become aware of your book through conventional marketing efforts.

My feeling is that most people who choose pirated books are unlikely to pay for them, even if that's the only way to get them. As such, I'm inclined to think the marketing effect of illegal copies exceeds the lost revenue. I have no data to back me up. Maybe it's just a rationalization to help me live with the knowledge that no matter what you do, there's no way you can prevent bootleg copies of your books from showing up on the Net.

My guess is that a component of O'Reilly's no-DRM policy was a hope that it would distinguish O'Reilly from other publishers and would attract buyers who felt strongly about DRM. Whether it did that, I don't know, but O'Reilly's decision to stop selling individual products at its web site suggests that DRM (or the lack thereof) is not an important differentiator for most buyers of technical books and videos.