Ebooks In India Today
Ebooks is the new buzz-word in publishing in India. Most
publishers – big and small – have begun the process of converting their printed
books into formats that can be used by online retail stores that are going to
be housing the content and selling it. The entry of big online retailers like
Flipkart and Amazon, and the popularity of ebooks in the Western markets have
provided the impetus to Indian publishers to venture into an arena they have
been reluctant to get into until recently, and publishers now promise that most
of their content will be available as ebooks within the next six months. The
need to enter the market of ebooks is not based on any real assessment of the
market, but is more a desire to keep pace with a major development that’s
happening all around the world.
At this point in time, the market for ebooks is not very
big. But that it is the future of Indian publishing is something everyone is
convinced about, even though printed books are here to stay, at least in the
foreseeable future. In 2004, the Federation of Indian Publishers estimated the
total number of books published in India at 82,537, out of which only 23 per
cent were in English, and the rest in other Indian languages. In terms of per
capita book title output, in the whole of India there were 8 titles per 100,000
population and in English 23 titles per 100,000 English speakers.
These figures are pretty dismal, but there is a lot of scope for growth,
especially because internet penetration is only at 10 per cent.
So printed books will remain the key medium of content distribution.
It is believed that ebooks will make life easier for
publishers. Eventually, paper and printing costs will drastically go down
because there will be less demand for printed copies. Speculating on how many
copies to print will no longer be a topic for discussion as print-on-demand
increasingly becomes the norm. Processes like stock keeping and warehousing will
change since there will be no need to store books. This will also lead to
reduction in overall costs including costs of maintaining distribution channels
for physical books, as well as sales and marketing costs because these will not
be undertaken in the same way for ebooks.
One of the other draws of ebook publishing is that
publishers hope to be able to reach those consumers that they couldn’t earlier.
Thomas Abraham, Managing Director of Hachette-India says, “The books that go
into Crossword and Landmark bookstores are still subject to somebody coming in
and seeing them, whatever marketing you might do. But if this becomes a norm,
some reader in a small town like Meerut who has no access to a bookshop can
still look [a book] up.” This will also happen at a much faster rate as the
time taken to produce an ebook is relatively less than a physical book.
The current publishing model in India is not without it
problems due to high-street retailing and increased discounts demanded by
distributors and retailers, and so publishers feel they have little choice but
to explore the ebooks market as well. However, no one is expecting that all
this will happen miraculously in a day, a month or even a year. Publishers
believe that it will take at least five to ten years before anything becomes
clear. “What is completely indisputable is that there’s no chance that this’ll
be anything but the way forward,” says Abraham.
While Indian publishers have felt the pressure to enter the
ebooks market for some time now, they have been dragging their feet over it. As
with everything related to the Indian demographics, this too has been for
varied reasons. One major problem has been the lack of a substantial readership
base. English-language publishing in India is a niche market and there’s a
perception that people above a certain age will not give up their printed
copies and bother to learn a new technology. Even among the younger generation,
who it is assumed would be more receptive to a new technology, there are
die-hard book fans for whom holding a book in their hands is a charm and who
may not be easily persuaded to make the shift to ebooks. Moreover, there is
hardly any technical support for other Indian languages, which drastically cuts
down on the readership. It is hard to offer content for different languages on
a lot of devices and most Indian publishers have historically not looked at the
internet as a medium to deliver content. There is also no adequate internet
connectivity and penetration. To find and download ebooks, one needs a good
broadband connection, which is still a dream in many parts of India that don’t
even have a telephone line. Some publishers, like Pratham Books, a
not-for-profit publisher, will continue to be driven by print books because of
this reality. Because, as Gautam John, New Projects Manager, Pratham Books,
says, “that’s the way to get a book to the last child of India. Our focus is to
provide content for children who have no content.”
Dearth of online bookstores is also cited as a reason for
the slow growth. Before Flipkart and Amazon decided to enter the market, there
were no big players. Amazon too was waiting for foreign direct investment (FDI)
approval to make an entry in India. (Though India encourages foreign
investments, foreign companies have to seek permission from the government of
India to enter the market.) Cost is an issue on many levels. From the
consumer’s perspective, ereaders are expensive – a Kindle costs upwards from
US$ 79 and India’s Pi reader costs upwards from Rs 9,999. A book buyer will not
want to buy a device to buy a book, especially if a printed copy is available
at the same price (in the Kindle Store, a paperback copy of Hunger Games by
Suzanne Collins is priced at US$ 5.39 and a Kindle ebook at US$ 5). For the
publisher, there are huge costs involved in investing in the new technology –
for instance, converting text into electronic format, digitally housing and
maintaining content, employing people with the appropriate technical
experience, and marketing costs in the digital space. Plus royalties for ebooks
are considerably higher: where for printed books it is between 5 and 10 per
cent, for ebooks it is at 20 per cent.
India has always been very receptive to new technological
developments and very fast to adapt and develop it for the Indian market. It is
interesting that while debates have been going on around ebooks and even before
ebooks became available, India had already developed ereaders for them. Pi by
Infibeam and Wink by E.C. Media were both launched in 2010 providing support
for not just English but also a few Indian languages. But neither managed to
gain much popularity, perhaps due to the inability to convince publishers to
part with the content, pricing of the ereaders, and lack of a brand awareness.
One would assume that copyright infringement, commonly also
known as “piracy”, would also be a concern with publishers. Many studies and
newspaper reports on epublishing in India make a mention of it.
But this is something that publishers whom I spoke to didn’t seem too worried
about. They are banking on digital rights management to take care of this
problem to a large extent.
Ironically, publishers also believe that piracy is not
something that can be stopped, and anyone with the intention of ripping off an
ebook will do so anyway, DRMs or no DRMs. So then, the question that begs
answering is: what are the DRMs actually for? As a head of a top publishing
house in India put it, “DRMs are there to keep the honest users honest.” That
is, the average book buyer who legally purchases legitimate copies of ebooks
from legitimate online bookstores.
In this paper I will focus on digital rights management
(DRM) as a technology whose full implications are not known and need to be
studied in depth before Indian publishers decide how to negotiate them. I will
be talking about what DRM is, how it works, and the concerns surrounding it in
terms of how they affect book buyers, publishers and online bookstores. I will
do this with the help of interviews conducted with heads of publishing houses
and online bookstores, authors and ebook buyers, and secondary sources that are
listed at the end of this paper.
What is Digital Rights Management?
Digital rights management (DRM) refers to protecting
ownership/copyright of electronic content by restricting what actions an
authorized recipient may take in regard to that content. DRM gives
digital-content publishers the ability to securely distribute high-value
content such as periodicals, books, photographs, educational material, video, and
research and to control the use of that content, preventing unauthorized
DRMs are used mainly in music, videos, computers, mobile
phones, games and ebooks. In terms of ebooks, this means that readers have
certain restrictions on the way they can use the ebook that they have bought:
- They cannot copy/paste content from the ebook.
- They cannot make a copy.
- They cannot print it.
- They cannot lend it.
- They cannot move it from one device (ereader, tablet, mobile
phone, PC) to another (for example, from a Kindle to a Nook), or can only move
it to a specified number of devices.
- They can download the ebook only a certain number of times.
- They cannot use the text to speech software to have it read
- They cannot buy ebooks in or of a particular territory.
Each publisher and online bookstore has its own set of DRMs,
which may enforce all or some of these aforementioned restrictions. Although
DRMs come in many different forms, they usually have four common stages:
Packaging: When DRM encryption keys are built right into the
software, that is, the ebook file.
Distribution: When DRM-encrypted files are delivered to the
buyers. This is usually through web server downloads, CDs/DVDs, or via files
emailed to the buyers. In the case of ebooks, currently only web server
downloads are available.
Licence serving: When specialised servers authenticate
legitimate buyers through the internet, and allow them to access the DRM files.
They can even lock the files when illegitimate users try to open or copy them.
Licence acquisition: When legitimate buyers acquire their
encryption keys so they can unlock their files.
As mentioned earlier, content providers believe that DRMs
are the only way to prevent copyright infringement and thus protect revenue
generation. “Without DRM, many publishers wouldn’t even think of making
[printed books] available as ebooks,” says P.M. Sukumar, CEO,
HarperCollins-India. It is believed that with DRMs, it will not be easy to
disperse content to the world at large without retailers and publishers knowing
about it. Abraham says: “Digital policing is relatively easier actually… And
the average reader is not out to break DRM, so it’s not so much a question of
piracy or copyright infringement unless somebody’s deliberately out to break
DRM and put a book up for free.”
How Do DRMs Work?
This is what Adobe, manufacturers of Content Server DRM
Effective DRM technologies work by allowing distributors of
electronic content to control viewing access to the content – whether printed
matter, music, or images – with some form of customized encryption. Individual
“keys” for viewing or listening to the content are provided to an end user who
has purchased rights, which generally include limitations on copying, printing,
When a prospective owner of digital rights downloads a
content file, DRM software checks the user’s identity, contacts a financial
clearinghouse to arrange payment, decrypts the file, and assigns a key – such
as a password – for future access. The publisher of the content can configure
access in numerous ways. For example, a document might be viewable but not
printable, or may only be used for a limited time.
On the back end, things get even more complex. Once access
rights and mechanisms have been assigned to a user, distributors must ensure
that everyone in the creation, production, and distribution process gets paid
fairly for use of the content. End-to-end software solutions, such as the
MetaTrust Utility from InterTrust, track payments all the way from the online
credit-card transaction to the royalty checks being deposited in the author or
Most DRM experts agree that the best rights systems combine
software and hardware access mechanisms. By tying access rights directly to
computer CPUs, hard drives, or other storage media, publishers can control not
only who is reading the information but also on what device. This level of
protection is important for highly sensitive documents such legal documents or
proprietary market research, where illegal copying and sharing could result in
There are many types of DRM systems but the three major ones
that are currently being used are: Amazon, which uses an adaptation of the
Mobipocket encryption; Apple’s DRM, which is called FairPlay; and and then
there is the Adobe Content Server. Amazon and Apple use their own DRM systems,
and most other retailers and distributors use Adobe’s. In India, both E.C.
Media and Infibeam, who developed their own ereaders, Wink and Pi respectively,
also use Adobe’s DRM. Flipkart, who will be launching its ebooks portal soon,
will also need to have a DRM software in place. Whether they use Adobe’s or
develop their own proprietary DRM remains to be seen.
There are other options to DRM that are sometimes known as
social DRM, which involves watermarking each ebook at the time it is bought
with the identity of the buyer. These ebooks can be used across any platform,
but if they are uploaded to a file-sharing website, one should be able to
identify the purchaser. The idea behind this is not to restrict the use of
content but to shame the customer who puts it to illegal use.
The History of DRMs
There is agreement all around that a creator of a work
should get credit for it. Some creators may desire monetary compensation too.
And hence, there is the need to “protect copy”, which translates into digital
rights management for content available on the internet. But where did DRM come
The idea of DRM is not a new one. It has a fairly long and
chequered history, but there have been some key landmarks in the
copy-protection timeline that have gone a long way in shaping the debate on DRM
Many of the floppy disks that we used once upon a time, for
instance, were copy protected. Even when music and video CDs and DVDs came into
the market, there was a limit on how many copies one could make, and CDs came
with bits of information to confuse music ripping software.
Film studios were some of the first large companies to adopt
DRM. When the DVD format was launched, it included an encryption called Content
Scrambling System that prevented users from making digital copies of films. CSS
DRM, however, was very soon broken by DeCSS, a tool developed for that purpose.
Recording labels also adopted DRM to prevent copying.
In 1998, in the US, an amendment to the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act criminalised the production and distribution of technology – like
DeCSS – that would allow consumers to thwart technical copy-restriction
methods. Essentially, it became a crime to circumvent anti-piracy measures, and
to manufacture, sell or distribute code-cracking devices used to illegally copy
But things really came to a head in 1999, when Napster, a
peer-to-peer file sharing internet service, made its debut. People were
suddenly able to duplicate and share music with an almost countless number of
users so that they could download numerous songs and albums for free.
Then came the Sony rootkit scandal in 2005, when Sony BMG
Music Entertainment deliberately included malware on their music CDs that would
report back to them if their CDs were played on computers instead of CD
players. Attempting to remove the rootkit even caused many machines to fail.
After much public and media criticism, Sony released a software tool to remove
the rootkit and exchanged the infected CDs.
In the ebook world, in 2011, HarperCollins announced that
the licence for new e-book titles purchased by libraries would expire after 26
checkouts. This meant that libraries would have to purchase another copy of the
book that they’ve already bought after it has been borrowed 26 times.
Librarians weren’t very happy about it.
I’ve only mentioned a few milestones in the history of DRMs.
There are of course many, many more.
The Real Story Behind DRMs
Book Buyers’ Bane
DRMs are a topic of much debate in the West these days and
have led to many controversies. The idea of copyright itself is being
questioned by the copyleft and the free culture movement, who object to the
highly restrictive copyright laws, which they believe hinder creativity. But
that’s a topic for another paper.
Richard Stallman’s 1997 short story “The Right to Read”
foreshadows where DRMs might lead us some day. It is a cautionary tale set in
the year 2047:
This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her—but if he lent
her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could
go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very
idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary
school that sharing books was nasty and wrong—something that only pirates would
And there wasn’t much chance that the SPA—the Software
Protection Authority—would fail to catch him. In his software class, Dan had
learned that each book had a copyright monitor that reported when and where it
was read, and by whom, to Central Licensing. (They used this information to
catch reading pirates, but also to sell personal interest profiles to
retailers.) The next time his computer was networked, Central Licensing would
find out. He, as computer owner, would receive the harshest punishment—for not
taking pains to prevent the crime.
Some believe that this is already a “dreaded, insane
Let’s look at the various DRMs mentioned earlier and their
implications for book buyers.
Copy/paste and print: If a buyer wants to copy/paste or
print a few passages from a book and use them as references or quotes in an
article or paper they are writing, they can’t.
Make a copy: Computers and hard disk failures have taught us
that we should back up all our data. DRM does not allow that. Which means if a
reader loses their ebook to a computer crash, they have to buy another copy or
resort to obtaining an illegal one. Gautam John of Pratham says: “There is no
way for anyone to guarantee that these DRM systems will work five, ten, fifteen
years from now. And if they don’t work, the piece of content that I bought is
broken and you can’t read it any more…. If I buy a book, I can read it 50 or
100 years from now, as long as the physical condition of the book is okay, and
there’s no reason to degrade that experience if it’s digital.”
Lend or move from one device to another: The buyer is not
allowed to share the ebook with anyone – not friends, not family – on their
devices. Most big retailers, like Amazon and Apple, have their own DRM systems
and others use Adobe’s, which only allows books to be opened on the Adobe
Digital Editions software. In this situation, moving ebooks from one device to
another is in some cases not possible. For example, a Kindle book cannot be
transferred to Nook or vice versa. Even if one is allowed to move to a specific
number of devices, it may not work the way one wants it to. Many Kindle
customers have complained that even after removing an ebook from a device, they
haven’t been able to put it in another.
Number of downloads: Retailers also limit the number of
downloads. Some allow only one download, which means that if the buyer loses
that ebook, the only choice is to buy the book again (or obtain it illegally).
For instance, Attano in India, who are ironically selling ebooks produced under
the Creative Commons licence by Pratham, allows only the one download.
Reading aloud: Not allowing an ebook to be read aloud is a
significant barrier for many people, including the visually impaired. Though
there might be audiobooks available, it means that these customers do not have
a say in choosing a format and have to go with the more expensive ‘option’ of
audiobooks. For example, on Amazon, a Kindle ebook may cost US$ 5 while an
audiobook will cost around US$ 23.
Territorial restrictions: If a reader wants to buy a Kindle
ebook published in the UK, for example, they can’t. This can be frustrating for
book lovers in countries like India, where the ebook market is still at a very
nascent stage. Nilanjana Roy, journalist and literary critic, says: “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.”
Another example is the iBookstore, which in India only allows users access to
free ebooks that are out of copyright.
Looking at the above, for all intents and purposes, unlike a
physical book, an ebook only gives buyers an illusion of ownership, even though
they pay a premium price for it, many times at par with the physical book.
Amazon, in its terms and conditions, clearly states: “Digital Content is
licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.” “Digital Content” is
obviously ebooks and “Content Provider” is Amazon. One wonders how long it will
be before more book buyers realise that ebooks with DRMs are not just an annoyance
but that one never actually owns them like one does physical books; that buying
a printed book gives one more privileges than a DRM-locked ebook. And then, how
long will it take them to reach the logical conclusion that procuring an ebook
illegally is simpler than buying one?
As if dealing with DRMs isn’t enough of a bother for book
buyers, now they also have to hunt for information on whether a particular book
has DRMs or not. Online retailers often make it hard for book buyers by not
clearly mentioning the kind of DRMs they have on the ebooks hosted on their
site. Since each publisher has its own demands on the kinds of restrictions
that they want to put on their ebooks, these can vary from strict to easy to
DRM-free. It took me a good two hours to find the terms and conditions for
Kindle and ebooks users on Amazon’s site. This is what it said in terms of the
use of ebooks:
Upon your download of Digital Content and payment of any
applicable fees (including applicable taxes), the Content Provider grants you a
non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited
number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise
permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Other
Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal,
non-commercial use…. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell,
rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights
to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not
remove or modify any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In
addition, you may not bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security features
that protect the Digital Content.
There is no clear mention of what the ‘security features’
are in terms of printing, copying, copy/pasting, number of downloads, reading
aloud or number of devices.
A customer on the Kindle Forum on Amazon’s site complained:
I’m furious that Amazon is no longer indicating which books
have DRM and which don’t. (Use to be listed as “Simultaneous Device Usage:
Unlimited” meant no DRM but Amazon has removed this category.
With this new policy, now authors have to list “DRM free” or “no DRM” in their
titles or product descriptions to assure customers that they are not paying for
a DRM-crippled product. (I say paying for, not buying, because if your product
is disabled and controlled by DRM, you didn’t “buy” it.)
I don’t buy DRM books or music. I like reading on my Linux PC…and yet Amazon
refuses to support it. I will stick to buying from Smashwords.com and Baen.com
(which are no DRM stores) until Amazon gets their act together on this issue.
An Indian reader I interviewed said: “I considered DRM a
pain, but saw no other way to get some books I needed. Once, some books I had
bought from one well-known ebook vendor became unreadable after a while; I was
told by the vendor that the particular form of DRM had been withdrawn (or
something like that) and I was given the books in another format. I had to
download the stuff again. Another time, when I switched laptops (which means
downloading all books again), some books of a particular format became
unreadable; I followed the instructions carefully for installation and
activation and stuff, but nothing worked. I then wrote to the vendor asking for
help, but my queries remained unanswered. Those ebooks remain lost to me.”
The scariest part of all this is that it puts control in the
hands of those who put DRMs in the ebooks. They know what the customer’s
reading habits are, what books are there in their library, how many times they
have read it, how many pages they’ve read, how many devices it’s on, and much
more. I’m going to quote Amazon’s terms and conditions here one more time just
because it took me so long to find them:
The Software will also provide Amazon with information
related to the Digital Content on your Kindle and Other Devices and your use of
it (such as last page read and content archiving). Annotations, bookmarks,
notes, highlights, or similar markings you make using your Kindle or Reading
Application and other information you provide may be stored on servers that are
located outside the country in which you live.
Not just this, online retailers also have the power to remotely
delete books from devices. This happened when Amazon deleted copies of George
Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from their customers’ devices. Many called this
The customers were refunded their money and the reason given was that a third
party had added those books to Amazon’s site when they had no right to do so.
Did Amazon have the right to delete these books remotely? If these were
physical copies, would they have gone to people’s homes and shredded those
books? The issue is not whether the reason to delete those books is valid, but
about whose rights were actually violated and how much power and control can a
bookstore exercise on its customers, and whether it can ever remain a one-off
thing like Amazon claims.
Do DRMs Really Stop Copyright Infringement?
Breaking DRMs is not that hard. As mentioned earlier, there
are many DRM technologies used with ebooks, the most common being Amazon’s,
Adobe’s and Apple’s. All of these have been broken. Even if one doesn’t use DRM
removal tools, it is just as easy to retype the whole book, or to use
screenshots or scans to create images that can be converted into text by OCR
While publishers believe that DRM is necessary to stop
unauthorised use, they are not convinced themselves that this will actually
stop piracy. “As for copyright infringement, that is already happening,” says
P.M. Sukumar, CEO, HarperCollins-India. “There are people in Pakistan and China
who scan the books and post it as a PDF on the internet. It’s not as if by introducing
ebooks you are precipitating a new problem. It’s a problem that already
exists.” Echoing this view, Ravi Mehar, Sales Manager, Cambridge University
Press, India, says, “Even if DRMs are in place, piracy will continue.”
What DRM can do is prevent “accidental infringement”, that
is, lending a book to a friend or a family member, or creating a back-up copy
for safety, or even printing a few pages for personal use. But can one really
call this copyright infringement? Why would any book lover want to deliberately
break copyright law after having legally purchased their ebook? They know it’s
not right to create many copies of the book and distribute it. Is it really
illegal for them to move their ebook from one ereader to another? Is it
unreasonable to create a back-up for safekeeping? These are the questions that
book buyers in India will soon be asking too once they directly run into the
problems that DRMs seem to bring with them.
As Gautam John points out: “The tools and technology
required to consume digital content are the same tools and technologies and
channels that allow people to communicate and share. It’s impossible to believe
one will happen in the absence of the other. And if you are going to try and
build the model that depends on one side of the tools and technology to get
them access to that content and deprive them of the tools and technology to
share and converse about that content, it’s doomed to fail.”
In fact, the real reason behind piracy is the lack of
convenient access to content that is desirable at a price that is reasonable.
Why, then, does the emerging ebooks market in India believe that DRM will be
Why DRMs then?
Not just publishers, but online retailers, too, believe that
DRM will not stop copyright infringement. They feel that no DRM manufacturer in
the world can claim that their DRM software is un-crackable, and those who are
hell bent on getting digital content for free will do so, no matter what.
So, if copyright infringement already exists and DRMs are not
the solution, then why are publishers and online bookstores so keen on them?
Since it is the publishers and not the retailers who decide
pricing for books, stores use it as a tool to prevent customers from buying
ebooks from other competing stores. They lock in the buyer to their store
through their DRM software so that the buyer cannot go anywhere else. For
example, someone who purchases a Kindle book, can either view the book on the
Kindle or the Kindle apps developed for PCs or Macs or mobile phones. They
cannot read it on Pi or Wink or Nook readers.
If a customer wants to leave Amazon and move to another
retailer, they have to leave behind all the ebooks purchased from Amazon
because they won’t open on any ereaders that don’t support the Amazon app. This
means that the customer would have to re-buy all the books that they have
already paid good money to get.
In India, given that Flipkart has developed its own app for
the digital music on their site, one could conjecture that it will follow the same
model for ebooks as well. And since Indian publishers have been insisting on
various levels of DRMs for their ebooks, in all likelihood Flipkart’s apps will
be the only platform which would decrypt the ebook files and make them readable
for ebooks downloaded from their site.
For publishers, DRM is a way to reassure authors – who are
their bread and butter – that their work will not be pirated. Many publishers
believe that authors will be in favour of DRMs. Sukumar says: “The author
basically knows that the publisher has similar interests as the author. The
author also wants to maximise sales and revenues from the commercial
exploitation of the book. I don’t see any conflict or problem there.”
Some authors are only too happy letting publishers handle all
of this so that they can get on with the business of writing. Natasha Sharma,
author of Icky Yucky Mucky (Young Zubaan) says: “I would be happy to leave it
to the publisher…. An opinion taken is fine, but if there’s a disagreement, I
don’t know how much I would have the overall capability, time and bandwidth to
look into it.”
But there are others who feel they want to be involved in
the decision about the kinds of DRMs set on their books. When asked whether she
would like to have a say, Payal Dhar, author of the Shadow in Eternity (Young
Zubaan) trilogy said: “Yes. I would go so far as to say that I wouldn’t go with
a publisher who has very strict DRMs. I’m more concerned with more people
reading my books than DRM.”
Some publishers, too, feel that authors should have a say.
Gautam John of Pratham says: “I think the author should have a complete say
because at the end of the day I believe that it has a direct bearing on how
many people will get to read their content. So I certainly believe that an author
should have complete control over whether their book goes out with DRM or
Some publishers and authors are also under the impression
that DRMs will lead to an increase in sales by preventing copyright
infringement. But there is no evidence that shows that this would actually
happen. In fact, studies that are available are mostly contradictory or from
questionable sources. As mentioned earlier, DRM controls allow publishers to
set all kinds of restrictions on ebook buyers, who are then forced to re-buy
books if they lose them when their hard drives fail or when the number of
downloads expire or when they want to move from one ebook reading device to
The fear that authors have of their work being stolen is
very valid, and DRMs are used as a tool to allay it. But in the real world,
DRMs don’t work. All they do is make it harder for book lovers to read an
author’s work. They may make an author some extra money through the re-buying
of books, but it could just as well reduce sales by frustrating buyers. Lack of
DRMs will not increase piracy. What will increase it is when books start to
cost more because of the pricing models employed by publishers and online
stores due these controls.
What DRMs will also do is wipe out online independent bookstores,
who do not have the finance or infrastructure to have DRM technologies.
Needless to say, this will increase the monopoly of the big players, and lead
to further control and hike in prices.
DRMs and Copyright Law in India
The Copyright Act, 1954, was the first post-independence
copyright legislation passed in India. This Act is compliant with most
international conventions and treaties in the field of copyright, such as the
Berne Convention, the Universal Copyright Convention and the Agreement on Trade
Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The Copyright Act was
amended many times, and one of the important amendments came in 1994, which
provided protection to digital technology sectors. It contained the rights of
copyright holders, rentals of software, temporary back-up copies and sanctions
for infringement, including the making or distribution of copies of software
without proper or specific authorisation.
Till recently, international copyright law was based on the
Berne Convention and the TRIPS agreement. But since 1974, most of these have
been managed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a UN
Agency. In 2010, more amendments were proposed to the Indian Copyright Act to
bring India in compliance with WIPO Internet Treaties, which require adoption
of anti-circumvention provisions, that is, to legally stop people from
circumventing DRMs. India has included this provision in the bill but “only to
the extent considered desirable and necessary”.
DRM anti-circumvention provisions in the WIPO internet
treaties are flexible, and allow countries great freedom in law making,
something that India’s new amendments take advantage of. The proposed amendment
says that bypassing DRM “with the intention of infringing” copyright is
illegal, but if that’s not the intent, then it’s all right. The Bill also does
not address devices and software that make such bypassing possible, so those
would remain legal.
But anti-DRM campaigners in India believe that since India
is not a signatory to the WIPO treaties, there is no need for compliance with
anti-circumvention provisions. They believe that any sort of DRM will allow
copyright holders to restrict access to digital media or software under terms
that would be permissible under current copyright law, like backing up a file.
Including this provision means that copyright holders will be allowed to
enforce their own copyright terms on digital media or software that they
produce, terms that are not in accordance with the current Indian Copyright
There has been a lot of pressure from the US government on
India to sign and ratify the WIPO internet treaties. They have also put India,
along with Pakistan and China, on the “intellectual property watch list” for
failing to prevent copyright theft. This list is part of the annual “Special
301” report on the adequacy and effectiveness of US trading partners’
protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights.
The US wants India to do what they did with their own
Digital Millennium Copyright Act and make all DRM circumvention a crime.
India’s reluctance to do so may not be clear, but even if the Bill is passed,
one hopes that there is enough scope there for Indian book buyers to not be
penalised for their ridiculous desires to use their ebooks like normal printed
The debate on DRM is hotting up in the West. Many
organisations and individuals are opposed to it, and a major campaign by the
Free Software Foundation, called Defective by Design, even declared 4 May as
the Day Against DRM. They believe that DRM stymies creativity and innovation,
and competition, that it is a violation of consumer rights and privacy, and
that all existing DRM technologies fail to adequately make concessions for fair
use and restrict the legal use of content.
They also believe that “digital rights management” is a
misnomer and that it should be called “digital restrictions management”. Many
publishers have also gone DRM-free due to public demand. Tor/Forge, the science
fiction and fantasy books imprint of Macmillan in the UK have decided to go
completely DRM-free by July 2012. Cory Doctorow, journalist, science-fiction
author and co-editor of the weblog BoingBoing hails this as “the beginning of
the end of DRM”.
But in India, publishers believe that in the current
scenario, it would be difficult to survive without DRMs. “If it’s the beginning
of the end of DRM, then it’ll also be the beginning of the end of publishing,”
says Sukumar of HarperCollins. “If there is no monetary compensation for somebody
to take three years, five years, ten years to write a book, and it is going to
be freely available for anybody around the world, why would that person ever
bother to sit down and write another book?”
Thomas Abraham of Hachette feels that for a niche market
like SFF, DRM-free ebooks may work, but “I would still think that if it’s a
Vikram Seth or something, where you’ve paid a very high advance, you would want
to get the mileage of every sale – by language and territory.” But then, if
publishers are worried that no DRMs will eat into the sales of more popular
authors, there is also J.K. Rowling who decided to keep the Potter books on
Pottermore DRM-free when they were released in March 2012, and got three
million “pupils” who enrolled at Hogwarts.
Will the absence of DRM really kill the publishing industry?
If one were to take a lesson from the history of digital music, one would say
that it’s unlikely. When Napster was shut down in 2001 because of accusations
of mass copyright infringement, it left a void in the online music market. In
2003, Apple entered the market with its iTunes music store and imposed the
FairPlay DRM on its music. After that, when Amazon entered the music market, it
came in DRM-free and it’s pricing was also better than iTunes. In the face of
tough competition, in early 2009, iTunes, too, went completely DRM-free.
Flipkart in India, when they launched their Flyte music
store earlier this year, too decided to keep their content DRM-free and their
prices reasonable (one can download a song for a price as low as Rs 6). Despite
not having invested much in advertising and publicity, the music store is said
to be delivering 8,000 downloads a day.
Since this is the beginning of a journey into the world of
ebooks for Indian publishers, it would be prudent to draw some lessons from the
history of DRMs in the West. To realise that DRMs are more destructive to their
business than useful. That imposing restrictions lead to more violations. That
placing trust in their customers will go a long way towards achieving their
goals of better business and building a community of happy book lovers. As
author Payal Dhar rightly points out: “People don’t buy books saying: ‘Ok let
me buy this book, then I’m going to rip it off, sell it and make money.’ People
usually buy books to read.”
Noakes-Fry, October 2000, quoted in “Digital
Rights Management Overview” by Austin Russ, Sans Institute Reading Room, 2001.
“The Right to Read” by Richard Stallman, in Communications of the ACM
“Divide-and-Rule: The DRM Effect” by Nilanjana Roy, Business
, May, 2012.
The author, Shweta Vachani, is a senior editor at Zubaan handling digital development and also the Poster Women project, a digital archive of the visual history of the women’s movement in India.