The Apple Piracy Effect: Will Sci-Fi eBooks Lead to a Fight Over Illegal Downloading?


Jules Verne's hydrogen-burning automobiles and submarines. Arthur Clarke's tablet computers. H. G. Wells's atomic bomb. Hugo Gernsbeck's accurate description of radar. What do these things have in common? These men were science fiction writers, and their imaginations produced inventions that would later come into being. Some, like Verne's depiction of hydrogen as fuel, still aren't widespread more than 150 years after he introduced the theme. Science fiction has a long history of predicting the future, and the latest news from Tom Doherty Associates, a publisher of science fiction and fantasy novels, appears to take that even further. Will DRM-free eBooks, like music before them, become the new industry standard?

Consumers generally have a hate-hate relationship with DRM (Digital Rights Management), a form of access control technology. Shortly after Napster brought online music sharing to the forefront, companies made vast profits from developing DRM schematics and selling them to content producers like EMI Music and other record companies. Early online music stores cumbered music purchases with restrictive terms, such as tying a purchase to one computer with a proprietary management software, or allowing it to only be used on a certain number of mobile devices.

Apple's iTunes Store shook up the music publishing world by discontinuing all music sales with DRM, opting instead for basic MP3s. Music publishers resisted initially, but after watching sales and profits rise substantially, due to the music being unencumbered with complicated restrictions, DRM-free music has become the industry standard. This time, however, it is the publishers making the move, not the distributors.

Tom Doherty Associates, a division of Macmillan Publishers, has announced that starting in early July, its entire catalog of eBooks will be for sale without any DRM encryption added. As a result, expect to see Tor/Forge surge in sales as old and new customers alike reward this company for its popular decision by purchasing its products.

It's hard to say exactly how this new era of DRM-free content will play out, but if the past is an indicator, other sectors, such as the motion picture industry, need to move forward with new technology and leave old, cumbersome DRM behind. Sci-fi has long predicted the future, and we'll soon see whether or not this holds true for the future of digital content.