What Are Publishers Afraid of With Device Restrictions?

By Joshua Gans

Posted on November 16, 2012

These days publishers are moving towards DRM free options. This has the advantage of freeing customers from Amazon lock-in as well as just making it easier for them to control their content. So for consumers who want to pay, this makes their product more valuable and gives them a reason to pay.
But for the vast majority of book publishers, they haven’t got the message. I found this out dramatically last week. I was setting up my new iPad Mini (it’s great by the way) and the Kindle app. As you do, one of the first things you do is download your own authored books. Information Wants to be Shared is DRM free so that was easy. But Parentonomics is not and I was informed that it had already been downloaded to the maximum about of devices on my Amazon account. That maximum is 5 and somewhere over the last two years (since it was released as an eBook) I had apparently downloaded it too many times. So I was informed by Amazon that I would have to purchase it again. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t happy about all of that.
Now who is the culprit here. The obvious entity to target is MIT Press, the publisher of the book. It is they who told Amazon or clicked some option to limit the number of downloads per account. For them, it was probably a natural reaction. Why should people want more than that? After all, they have purchased one and are getting 5; what a great deal?
Of course, that is physical product reasoning come in to a digital arena. It is poor reasoning. Surely, there are no real costs to allowing more downloads. In just a couple of years, it was a pain for me; what about the long future?
Now, a little more pushing would likely give rise to an additional cost: piracy. In this case, it is the idea that a bunch of consumers will get together and share Amazon accounts. Impose no restrictions on downloads and they will form clubs of 10s or 100s of people and MIT Press will lose sales.
But is that even remotely plausible? It isn’t an easy measure to coordinate that many people. We had to do planning just to get our family onto the one Amazon account. Can a bunch of friends do that? After all, Amazon restricts Kindles and Kindle apps to just one login. They would have had to plan this at quite an early stage not to face heaps of other costs. Anyone who wants to be that sophisticated to save money on books will surely have no problem actually going to ‘fully illegal’ and just torrenting the books. In other words, even taking this argument seriously leads one to conclude that the set of interested readers of Parentonomics who are willing to form massive Kindle clubs is pretty much zero.
So what happens when you impose device download restrictions on legitimate purchasers? Well, here is what I did: I stripped the DRM from the book. Here are instructions on how to do that. Now I can have my book again on my iPad. People reading this may speculate whether I have broken the law. It is hard to say but if MIT Press or Amazon send me some legal letter claiming that, I’ll be sure to let everyone know and we can take it from there.
That brings me back to the culprit. It is my impression that Apple does not limit devices for iBooks purchases. They are always synced now on iCloud and can be downloaded to your devices now and in the future. (Apple haven’t been so kind for computers with music and videos but on mobile devices they are open). Amazon gives publishers the option to limit. Because the option is there, the publishers take it. So the difference between Apple and Amazon is that Apple do not believe this should be an option and it will interfere with the consumer experience and will play to non-existent fears. Amazon, on the other hand, want to wipe their hands clean of it. But the problem is that Amazon products are crimped as a result. More critically, consumers do not know what restrictions are actually in place when they buy a book. So they may or may not be buying a crimped product. I didn’t know when buying my own book for goodness sake.
Amazon should start to take back some publisher control and work towards making it better for consumers. It will cost them nothing but they will have much to gain. Oh yeah, and while I’m at it, why is Amazon’s apps (both on the Kindle and iPad) so bad for organising book collections? How hard could it be to give consumers some options here? Maybe this would be a better allocation of product investment than new hardware devices.
The preceding is re-published on TAP with permission by its author, Joshua Gans, Chair of Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Professor of Strategic Management, Rotman School of Management. What Are Publishers Afraid of With Device Restrictions? was originally published November 10, 2012, on Digitopoly.