In my latest Guardian column, “How Amazon is holding Hachette hostage,” I discuss the petard that the French publishing giant Hachette is being hoisted upon by Amazon. Hachette insisted that Amazon sell its books with “Digital Rights Management” that only Amazon is allowed to remove, and now Hachette can’t afford to pull its books from Amazon, because its customers can only read their books with Amazon’s technology. So now, Hachette has reduced itself to a commodity supplier to Amazon, and has frittered away all its market power. The other four major publishers are headed into the same place with Amazon, and unless they dump DRM quick, they’re going to suffer the same fate.
Under US law (the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and its global counterparts (such as the EUCD), only the company that put the DRM on a copyrighted work can remove it. Although you can learn how to remove Amazon’s DRM with literally a single, three-word search, it is nevertheless illegal to do so, unless you’re Amazon. So while it’s technical child’s play to release a Hachette app that converts your Kindle library to work with Apple’s Ibooks or Google’s Play Store, such a move is illegal.
It is an own-goal masterstroke. It is precisely because Hachette has been so successful in selling its ebooks through Amazon that it can’t afford to walk away from the retailer. By allowing Amazon to put a lock on its products whose key only Amazon possessed, Hachette has allowed Amazon to utterly usurp its relationship with its customers. The law of DRM means that neither the writer who created a book, nor the publisher who invested in it, gets to control its digital destiny: the lion’s share of copyright control goes to the ebook retailer whose sole contribution to the book was running it through a formatting script that locked it up with Amazon’s DRM.
The more books Hachette sold with Amazon DRM, the more its customers would have to give up to follow it to a competing store.
(Image: Noose, Old Austin County Jail, Bellville, Texas 0130101348BW, Patrick Feller, CC-BY)