ebooks: price + DRM = piracy + waste

amazon_kindle_2As the recent owner of an amazon Kindle ebook reader , I’m thrilled with the ability to carry and read thousands of books in a tiny little device. The screen is crystal clear and easy on the eyes. The wireless and note-taking capabilities are handy features, too.

Yet while ebook readers and electronic distribution of books and other published material offers convenience and environmental advantages, ebook DRM irresponsibly encourages both piracy and waste.

Falling costs

book costs

According to general estimates, most of the costs traditionally associated with the publishing industry vaporize in the digital age. Notice how all of the various components are nullified with ebooks except for author royalties and retailer profit. If we assume $10 for a paperback, this means about $2.00 ends up going to the author, publisher, and retailer as profit. Everything else is to cover the costs.

If eliminating production and distribution costs of printed materials means reduced costs (as well as a greener earth), why aren’t these savings passed along to consumers? Like the music, software, and gaming industries, piracy will be the natural alternative to those who balk at the illogically high prices of ebooks.


Digital ownership has plagued every industry in recent years. Music, movies, software, and games have all experimented unsuccessfully with digital rights management (DRM) to control the distribution of digital goods. But all of these models are inherently flawed.

Think about it: many current ebooks cost about $10. This may seem reasonable until you realize that for $10, you’re purchasing a book that you don’t really own. Like iTunes songs, an amazon ebook includes DRM which ties it to your account and your Kindle. This means that when I buy a book on amazon, I’m stuck with it. Unlike the $15 paper book I could purchase and then give awayresell, or even loan to a friend, my digital copy is mine forever. Heaven forbid I decide to switch ebook readers in the future and have to abandon (or repurchase) all of my ebooks (which would likely be equally locked to the new reader).

Remember the library?

I honestly find very few books worth purchasing, simply because I don’t tend to re-read many tomes (Lord of the Rings trilogy notwithstanding). Why hasn’t anyone figured out a secure and convenient way to connect with public libraries to borrow books (that people actually want to read) on a Kindle?

The current model for ebooks encourages waste in an already disposable-focused society. When I buy a physical book, I try to get it used rather than new, both for cost savings and to contribute to “reuse” over waste. From both the buyer’s and seller’s perspective, the used book economy is equally wonderful: I buy a book, enjoy it, then sell it to someone else for a discount (good for them) and recoup some of my investment (good for me). However, with the Kindle, once I’m done reading the latest Grisham novel, my only option is to delete it from my device.

The Inevitable Solution

Barnes & Noble’s announcement this week of their new ebook reader, the nook, encouraged me. The nook matches most of the capabilities of the Kindle, but raises the stakes with the option to lend ebooks to other nook and iPhone/iPod Touch users. This, I feel, is a step forward for ebook users, but there is still much ground to cover. For example, you can only lend an ebook for 14 days. Why? Why can’t I set my own timeframe?

One thing I’ve pondered is, “Why don’t I have the same problem with digital music?” The simple answer is that I just don’t want to get rid of music like I used to. Back when I bought full albums just to enjoy two tracks, I quickly tired of it and sold it used. By purchasing individual tracks from iTunes or amazon, however, I’ve found that I’m much more satisfied with my collection.

Until the book industry figures out a better model of digital ownership, I can only imagine that users will turn to one of two methods:

  1. Skirting legitimacy by hacking the DRM out of their ebooks, or
  2. Avoiding legitimacy through outright piracy.

I would hope that with the brilliant technological minds of the 21st century, someone can invent a non-evil DRM method with which I can legally and easily transfer ownership to someone else.

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