Goa has spawned Publishing Next, a conference for professionals that is a festival with performance and tamasha shaved off. No big stars, just working stiffs, but all the stiffs from the big academic publishers to the littlest startups. Deadly interesting if you’re in the trade, deathly boring if you’re not. Except when there’s a session like the one on electronic publishing this year. It was mostly about standards and the extraordinary cost of coding for EPUB3.0 (Why? Free editors exist to do this), until someone uttered the D-word: DRM. Digital Rights Management, which protects copyright on electronic books.
A FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) activist in the audience immediately Googled three ways to crack DRM. “Impossible,” said the young man from an internet bookstore, without much conviction. Maybe he knows of five ways. “Hang on, my friend just read a DRM-cracked copy of Thomas Piketty,” protested the guy sitting beside me.
“Impossible!” snorted the person from a big trade publisher.
“All right, it wasn’t my friend. It was me, and the book read fine.” Desperate stuff, and this guy’s part of the cultural machinery of government.
“You are a criminal. You have abetted a crime. Copyright is sacred,” said a visibly agitated Mr Trade. Any moment, one expected to see the charge escalated to sin. Maybe, even original sin. It was showtime, and the rabbits were in the headlights. All over again.
Religious fervour is not a sovereign remedy for market evolution, but just over a decade ago, the music industry had thought that the ritual of stoning the devil would stave off the future. It went after pirates — who are indeed thieves, but pickpockets rather than highway robbers — with heavy legal artillery and crusading zeal. But ironically, piracy did not kill the recording industry. It was only a colourful curtain-raiser. The coup de grace was delivered by the iTunes store. Apple understood that if otherwise law-abiding people were comfortable pirating music, the recording industry’s model was irretrievably busted. The music industry has always collected a few tracks together and punched them to vinyl, tape or CD, depending on the year on the calendar. Apple figured that if they made an alternative channel connecting creators, publishers and Apple devices, they would make a killing.
In book publishing, that step is over, but indecisively so. There’s a variety of devices and channels in the market, but piracy is still rampant, and it is accepted — by everyone other than publishers — as part of the landscape. The big disruptive change is still waiting to happen, not in the matter of channels but in rights and ownership. All the stakeholders, including most publishers, realise that a looser model of ownership is needed. Internet bookstores and e-text portals are liberalising sharing permissions and rekindling the lending library online.
But a substantial section of the publishing industry persist in hoping that they can continue with the current, unimaginative intellectual property regime because readers will always prefer “curated content”. Earlier, they were supposed to prefer curated music, and didn’t. Seriously, this precious term is just a curate’s egg, but somehow it lives on.