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Of Oyster, DRM, and libraries

Keep Out by Kim Newberg
Keep Out by Kim Newberg

I’m posting this for readers who aren’t familiar with DRM (“digital rights management”) and other forms of customer lock-in that I think are (un)fairly egregious.

It’s tempting to say stuff like “nobody should fall for that” or “caveat emptor” when these topics come up, but here’s my take: There are lots of things everybody should know, and nobody has time for all of them. So if this is new stuff for you, or you’d like to see if I have something interesting to say…read on. Or if you think I’m full of…beans?…and think it might be fun to argue in the comments, I’m up for that too.

Essentially, DRM:

  • Introduces technical barriers to reading/converting/storing digital content
  • Often ties a customer’s purchase to a particular piece of hardware or software (and thus a particular vendor)
  • Suffers from obsolescence, meaning that purchased content often becomes unavailable through no fault of the customer
  • Is the subject of legislation/interpretation in many countries, meaning DRM removal (even by a legitimate customer who actually paid for the digital product) is often illegal
  • Is touted as a means to combat piracy, but in reality encourages it–because so-called “piracy” becomes more common when digital works are not easily available through other means

Truthfully I go months at a time without thinking about DRM. But the other day Mark Coker from Smashwords posted about a new subscription-based service called Oyster. Some background: Smashwords is used by many authors & small publishers (including me) to distribute ebooks. Smashwords is in the habit of automatically opting in all works to all new distribution channels.

So here’s the first problem that occurred to me: Oyster is a “closed reading environment” (per Coker in the comments to his post). The semi-neat idea behind the service is that readers get an all-you-can-read subscription for $9.95/month, and authors/publishers get paid only for the actual books read–probably not including reader abandonment during what other retailers would call a “free sample,” and not even necessarily even paying the publisher for an entire book if it’s not completed (merely one of several unknowns at this point; Oyster isn’t saying).  Regardless of exactly how the payment to publishers is structured, it’s a potentially cool way to keep reading affordable and reward those who actually pull readers all the way through their books. But:

  1. This means Oyster is keeping track of which pages people read, which strikes me as somewhat creepy (though, yeah, I know…privacy is outdated)
  2. The ebooks are “protected” by the nastiest form of DRM I know of: they can only be read within Oyster’s application. Meaning that if Oyster stops supporting the app, or you want to use an older device and the app becomes restricted to newer hardware/software, you lose access entirely
  3. You will be able to read only your last ten downloads offline. This is the real deal-breaker for me. See, once you’ve read an entire ebook, the publisher of that ebook gets paid (I don’t know how much; Oyster is keeping that close to the vest right now, but the principle remains). So I see no reason why the reader shouldn’t be able to download a DRM-free version of each ebook for offline reading at any time. They’re creating an artificial scarcity that benefits neither writers nor readers…and I don’t like it.

There are other reasons to decide against Oyster, but they come down to nit-picking: they’ll be good for some readers and not so good for others. If Oyster changes its stance on DRM I may decide I like them quite a bit. If not…not.

So okay, I opted out of Oyster. Fine; nobody but me cares at this point. But it turned out Smashwords is also distributing books to Sony (which I knew) and Sony applies DRM (which I didn’t). Could I have known this? Sure! There are lots of things I wish I’d known all along. But the Smashwords FAQ, which takes a laudable stance against DRM, does not at the time I write this mention that any of the retailers it distributes to apply DRM (I’m hoping they clarify things). At no time in the process of publication of an ebook do they make this clear. Here’s the thing: I am not willing to allow any reader of my stuff to get into hot water for something as innocuous as converting a file to another format. Or sharing it with a friend, either. So if you have a DRM-encumbered copy of anything I’ve written? Send it to me. I’ll send you a DRM-free version, which you can then copy, convert, and back up without any legal ramifications. And I’ve pulled everything from Sony, though that probably won’t take effect immediately.

Okay, fine, that’s dealt with. But…did you notice the Smashwords FAQ also says that ebooks it distributes to libraries have DRM applied? That sucks! I had separate pricing for all my stuff so it would be absolutely free for libraries! I don’t know that any of them took me up on it, but under the circumstances I can’t see a valid argument for DRM. So, in spite of the fact that I love libraries and I think there are great opportunities there for readers and publishers alike? And even though I would like them to have free access to everything I write? I pulled my ebooks from library distribution.

If you’re wondering: No, I don’t think any of these retailers/distributors/libraries/legislators care about my opinion. Doesn’t mean I don’t have one, or that I think this DRM business (or “industry”) is defensible on either practical or ethical grounds. So I won’t play. If you’re a writer or publisher, I hope you won’t either. I’m sure you’re a reader…so I hope you’ll be selective about where you get your fix.

Have fun out there.

Published inPublishingRandom Rants


  1. ABE

    It’s always something, isn’t it?

    Which is why authors need to stay connected to and in control of their own work – otherwise their publishers and distributors are making decisions for them without their consent which affect THEIR readers.

    Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

    Of course, in the old days, you couldn’t read unless you went somewhere and acquired that most RM method of all: having to find a PHYSICAL copy of the darned thing so you could read it.

    • David

      Ha–I remember physical books. And also I remember when VCRs were new. And how “intellectual property” law changed as a result. This stuff is always in flux.

      But for some reason I forgot to include this link:

      Cory Doctorow is always worth reading, by which I mean both his fiction and his nonfiction. He nails the DRM issue.

  2. Heather

    I was looking at a post about the digital media paradigm that, as far back as 1981, corporations didn’t wanna HEAR about the coming changes…

    Reading shortly into your DRM convo, I got a visual:

    Corporations or any entity that defines itself by “If you join us, you must do it OUR WAY–there is no other way”, are essentially a “DRM” mechanism.

    We just keep playing that same old crap: “You will do what we tell you or we will kill you.”

    *shakes head*

    Hope you are doing well, DahVID

  3. Heather

    And at the risk of being seen as ‘advertising myself’ — which it occurs to me, I DO any time I open my mouth, (but people have odd ‘filters’ about this,) I wish to direct you, David, to an addendum I added to my recent update, as it relates to you. You can scroll past any part you don’t wanna read; I just wanted to SHOW you, today, that I support you. Let me REPEAT THAT. I support you:

    • David

      Thanks, Heather! I’m flattered. Now I have to live up to it. Or at least try. {8’>

  4. Shelley

    Well hells bells…guess who is a victim(but becoming an educated consumer)? I turned on my Nook that I haven’t used in a while–probably close to 9 months, except for the recent purchases I made a month ago. When I made the recent purchases I planned on reading them later and didn’t really look at everything else on my Nook. All other purchases made in the last 3 years are gone! Probably close to $80 worth. I have e-mailed B&N. We’ll see what they say.
    David, Thank you for opening my eyes.
    Your statement “So if you have a DRM-encumbered copy of anything I’ve written? Send it to me. I’ll send you a DRM-free version, which you can then copy, convert, and back up without any legal ramifications. ” made me sit up, take notice, and my brain actually kicked into gear (it didn’t hurt too bad).
    I purchased Shiver On The Sky” from Amazon and it resides on my lap top in the library of the Kindle “app” I have installed. Are you saying I can receive a copy of this awesome book and have it reside on a flash drive so that I will never ever lose it? This is where I am technically challenged but willing to learn.
    If I need to purchase it directly from you I am more than willing to do that. I just want to know that my book is safe from black hole hell.
    Thank you !!! I will be doing more research this evening about this whole issue. I find it intriguing and scary all at the same time. It’s surprising what John Q Consumers including me, are willing to accept.

    • David

      Hey Shelley 🙂

      Sorry to hear about your B&N/Nook problem. I hope they fix that for you.

      My stuff from Amazon is DRM-free, or should be. So you ought to be able to make a copy from wherever your Kindle app is storing documents (might take a bit of looking to find ’em). If you want to read it in another format or on another device, or just keep a backup copy somewhere, the easiest way is probably to download a free program called “Calibre” ( It organizes ebooks into a library for you, which is nice. Personally I like to keep backups in the cloud, too, and I use the same software to sync my Calibre library between computers.

      Anyway, if you convert the version you have to EPUB you ought to be able to read Shiver on your Nook too. Or you could just go to Smashwords and download a copy in whatever format you like.

      Not all ebooks distributed by Amazon are DRM-free, unfortunately. It’s up to each publisher to make that decision.

      • Shelley

        Ok I am understanding this much better now. I really like the sounds of Calibre combined with the cloud and will definitely give it a try. Thank you again for helping me and giving me great stories to read !!
        Hey, just got a visual…of TGTGAE and drops of data raining down on people’s heads when the cloud becomes too full….Caveat Lector for sure !!!!!

  5. Rahul

    Hi David, Thanks for sharing the article. You say that, “and authors/publishers get paid only for the actual pages read–not necessarily an entire book”. Where are you getting this information from?


    • David

      I don’t know that I’d call that “information” exactly–Oyster’s not telling us how it’ll work yet. So I’m trying to avoid making unnecessary assumptions. Mark Coker did specifically say in his post that “Smashwords authors will earn their royalty whenever an Oyster subscriber reads more than a sample of their book.” But what’s the royalty? I have no clue. Is it based on retail price? Word count? Phase of the moon? Personally I’d like it to be based on retail price, and I’d also like to set an Oyster-specific retail price (because “freebies” get a little bit weird in this context).

      But you’re right–I screwed up. My phrasing’s awkward & misleading. I’ll go fix it.

      I’m sure all this stuff will become clear eventually. And I may even care, depending on how the DRM bit works out over time… {8’>

      • Rahul

        Gotcha. I am curious to find out what the terms for the authors are. I believe Smashwords will be informing authors on this soon. Can you write a blog post detailing such terms once they are announced?


  6. Faithful Reader

    David, Thank you for this post. I read it with great care and clicked on keywords to get the whole picture. I am now a much more informed reader and will be very careful about how I get my fix. Thank you for clarifying that your work on Amazon is DRM free. I am getting ready to check out my hard drive / Calibre options and see what I can find. After that it’s Marvin time 🙂

  7. I think the Oyster DRM issue is an unfortunate side effect of it being a subscription service and there is no way around it.

    Without DRM, there is nothing stopping someone from signing up for one-month and downloading EVERYTHING on Smashwords (and other participating vendors) and then quitting.

    Personally, a subscription service is not at all appealing to me. I want to OWN my books…so I buy from Smashwords and other non-DRM vendors, like Baen, Weightless, Black Library, Book View Cafe, Angry Robot, Solaris, Dragon Mount, Paizo, DriveThru, Thrillbent and many others.

    I NEVER buy anything with DRM. Even though DRM-stripping is theoretically easy (I haven’t bothered to learn how), I don’t want to reward companies for crippling their products with DRM.

    I also don’t buy ebooks from Amazon because of their requirement for a proprietary app or, failing that, use browser-based reader, which can, at any time, be arbitrarily restricted/blocked if Amazon changes their browser requirements.

    I insist on being able to just buy and download my books.

    Besides, there are so many GREAT non-DRMd books and vendors out there, I have an incredible selection from the publishers and authors who understand the importance of non-DRM, so it is not much of a sacrifice to stick to only non-DRM vendors.

    • David

      Well…as I said in the post, Oyster could avoid most of the issue from my perspective by letting people download the books they, and Oyster, have paid for–after they’ve been read. Oyster could also use some sort of logic to “validate” that a book has been read–they must have that already anyway, don’t you think? If Oyster doesn’t trust that it’s valid, why should I trust Oyster’s algorithm either? If I don’t trust it, why would I believe Oyster would know when to pay me? So they’d better solve the problem or they’re going out of business anyway.

      Other than that? Yes, people will rip off subscription services, and will sign up just to do so. I don’t know that those same people would ever pay more anyway, though. They’re out for freebies. Maybe they’ll do that and become a fan and start paying an author. Maybe they won’t. What’s lost, anyway? Profit that would never be had? As a writer, my take is this: that person wouldn’t have read my stuff otherwise but now might. I just gained something.

      And it’s not hard to defeat this particular notion anyway, without DRM, via reasonable Terms of Service. I’d have no objection if Oyster just killed accounts that started to do that–read more than a couple of 300-page novels in a day, and you’re on a list. Read five of ’em every day for a week, in full, and your account goes bye-bye. Or some such scheme. This is easy stuff for computers.

      “Piracy” of whatever stripe will always be with us. If Oyster’s business model depends on stamping it out, they’ll fail. It can’t be done, and attempts to do so will just irritate their normal customers.

      I’ll say it again: in the long run we creative types get paid as the result of the goodwill of our readers. Nothing else matters. I won’t let Oyster, or anyone else, irritate/endanger my readers via any form of DRM.

  8. Nick Travers

    David, I support what you are saying about DRM in respect of purchased books – I’m checking now to make sure my Amazon books are all DRM free.

    However, I’m not so sure about the Oyster and libraries issue. If I borrow a physical book from a physical library, I do not expect to own or keep that book. Likewise, if I ‘rent’ a film from a subscription online source I don’t expect to keep the film. Anyone who pays for the Oyster service is agreeing to their terms of service which does not include the keeping of the books they read, so I can’t see how DRM is an issue. In fact, surely this is the only situation in which DRM is acceptable.


    • David


      I semi-agree, but only in a theoretical sense. My biggest problem with DRM is that it is (at least in the USA) illegal to remove it–for anyone at all. If I, the copyright holder, download an ebook I wrote with DRM applied, and I remove that DRM? I just broke the law.

      I simply won’t allow retailers and legislators to make my readers into criminals for doing something as simple as choosing to read a book in another format. What if an Oyster user prefers to read on a Nook, and converts a title to EPUB? There may or may not be ethical problems at some point if that user then discontinues the Oyster subscription and continues to access the material. Oyster may or may not have a legal grievance. But the DRM removal itself is okay with me, in the absence of evidence of an intent to defraud anyone.

      I’m not willing to presume copyright infringement on the basis that a tool might be used to violate my copyright. Further, I’m not sure I’m willing to have current copyright law applied to the actions of a reader (rather than a person who’s taken to publishing my stuff for profit, say) in any situation. Since the law does not allow me the ability to make that decision piecemeal, I’ll make it on a wholesale basis: no DRM on my titles. I’ll happily send DRM-free versions to anyone who purchased a DRM-encumbered version in the past, and I’ll offer an apology to go with it.

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