A year after removing digital rights management from its books sci-fi publisher Tor made a surprising announcement.
Sci-fi once again proved it was ahead of the game when on 25 April 2012 the Macmillan imprint Tor  revealed it would remove digital rights management (DRM) from their entire list of e-books.

This industry-first means that for the past year, readers who purchased Tor books could share them between any e-reader, whether they have a Kindle, Nook or Kobo.

Apart from the rejoicing of readers who want to do basic tasks, like load an e-book onto two e-readers, Tor says the experiment has exposed ‘no discernable increase in piracy’ once DRM is removed. Currently, many publishers, distributors and retailers have justified restrictive DRM in e-book files and readers as a way to protect copyright but many readers just find it annoying they can’t move their books between devices or lend them to friends, as they would with a paperback.

Julie Crisp, Editorial Director at Tor UK, realised that many people felt that way – particularly fans of genre. ‘For our particular readership, we felt it was an essential and fair move,’ she stated in a recent blog post. ‘Having been in direct contact with our readers, we were aware of how frustrated many of them were with DRM.’

Because science fiction readers are ‘first in-line to experiment with new formats, new reading experiences and new devices’, it only made sense for the company to liberate the literati from the Darth Vader like death grip of DRM.

‘We felt a strong sense that the reading experience for this tech-savvy, multi-device owning readership was being inhibited by DRM leaving our readers unable to reasonably and legally transfer book files between… devices.’

Tom Doherty Associates, publishers of Tor, Forge, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen, president and publisher Tom Doherty agreed, stating, ‘They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them.’

The common rationale for DRM is that it protects an author’s copyright and territoriality of sales. But Crisp says that Tor’s authors felt the force of DRM restrictions just as much as their fleet of readers. Discussions to rival the engineering of the Enterprise were undertaken with authors before the decision was made last year, with Crisp highlighting Tor’s ‘very stringent anti-piracy controls’.

In April last year the outpouring of support from authors via Twitter rivalled a Ray Bradbury book signing, with the imprint’s authors lining up to praise the decision. ‘Best news I’ve heard all day,’ Tweeted The Thousand Emperors author Gary Gibson, while Kay Kristoff, author of Stormdancer, called it ‘a visionary and dramatic step… a victory for consumers’. Celebrated sci-fi scribes China Miéville and Charles Stross also welcomed the decision, as did Guardian technology blogger and author Cory Doctorow.

Like faulty Mandalorian armour, DRM isn’t foolproof against piracy and Crisp believes that ‘a great majority of readers are just as against piracy as publishers are’. The sense of camaraderie between fans, authors and publishers may have contributed to the claim that Tor has ‘seen no discernible increase in piracy on any of our titles, despite them being DRM-free for nearly a year’.

Potentially, the move doesn’t only benefit William Gibson fans and would-be cyberpunks who want to share. Now that there is an example resisting the assumption that removing DRM propels piracy, other publishers and retailers will find difficulty justifying the restrictive practice, right?

While it may not be time to put the cork back in the bottle, it could be premature to swing from the chandeliers. The debate over e-book piracy isn’t as simple as one case study.

Suw Charman Anderson, writing for Forbes, finds the debate mirroring the ongoing battle in the music industry:

‘Evidence from the music industry has pointed to several apparent trends, such that people who download a lot of music also buy a lot of music, and that so-called piracy tends to result in a majority of artists earning a little more, with a small number of top-earners bringing in a little less. But there are also those who argue that the evidence shows that illegal downloads do hurt sales.’

But that’s the debate, the comparison isn’t necessarily warranted. Books and music are consumed incredibly differently. Music is enjoyed over and over again while most people read books once or twice, and methods of duplication are as distant as Earth and Pluto. Ripping a CD is easy, scanning an entire book isn’t. ‘It is simply not valid to transpose results from music to books,’ Anderson writes.

As the reaction of Tor fans suggests, readers seemingly appreciate the work of authors perhaps a bit more than music fans, and are willing to pay for the contribution to their lives. But if that proved incorrect, it’s still difficult to tell if readers are swapping e-books as readily as people upload music to an iPod.

Apart from a 2010 study that found e-book sharing is increasing, there’s not a great deal of data out there on e-book piracy. Anderson believes that some of the studies that are undertaken ‘have flawed methodologies’, with surveys full of ‘loaded questions that lead the respondent to answer in a particular way’, thus negating their effectiveness.

‘DRM discussions are still mostly driven by ideology rather than evidence and for the average publisher/author/reader it’s hard to know which studies are reliable,’ she says.

David Progue of the New York Times has a similar take on the DRM debate. He outlines two camps: those that believe copyright protects business and those that believe pirates are mostly cash-poor kids, who wouldn’t purchase something in the first place but might if it was fairly priced. This second camp also contends that without DRM, your wares will get into more people’s hands, which may lead to return customers.

‘But in general, all of this is just opinion badminton,’ says Progue. ‘There have been very few experiments to test which camp is correct.’

The Tor announcement is an experiment that’s yet to be proven. While there’s no ‘discernible’ increase in piracy, no evidence has been provided to prove it. How do you prove something that’s not happening?

Even that 2010 study demonstrates the collective doubt about DRM on both sides of the debate. It finds that 3 million people daily are looking to download e-books. That statistic could be used to prove Tor’s peace and love tactic wrong, but it also justifies their decision – people who want to pirate are capable of cracking DRM anyway.

Similarly, the reciprocal loyalty between Tor and its readers also makes it difficult to determine if stripping DRM would work for other book genres. It’s safe to say that fanboys (and girls) are known for their fervour – just look at ComicCon – while other genre lovers might be a little less obsessive.

Crisp herself admits this. ‘The genre community is close-knit, with a huge on-line presence, and with publishers, authors and fans having closer communication than perhaps some other areas of publishing do.’

Think of people who devour crime novels, they might want to further their vicarious thrill with a little e-book theft, or historical fiction aficionados might want to experience piracy over the digital sea.

While Tor’s experiment seems successful so far, it’s not a true antidote to the Jekyll and Hyde DRM debate. Most commentators on the subject believe there needs to be more hours in the lab and better measurements than pieces of string.

‘There’s very little evidence. More publishers in more categories should perform more experiments like Tor’s. Let’s quit opining about what will happen, and find out,’ Progue advises.

Anderson shares a similar view. ‘The best way forward would be for some publishers to get together and fund some research into Tor, to discover what attributes their readers and authors have and to compare that with the attributes of readers in different genres to see just how far we can generalise Tor’s experience.’

Perhaps by 25 April next year we’ll know more.