Science fiction publisher Tor UK has announced it is dropping digital rights management (DRM) from all of its e-books, in a move that could set a precedent for the rest of the industry.
DRM is class of access control technologies used by copyright holders to limit the distribution of digital content. Publishers use DRM to protect their e-books from piracy, but it is unpopular among many customers because it prevents them from sharing titles between electronic devices.
Tor UK, whose parent company Macmillan is currently embroiled in a US lawsuit over accusations of e-book price fixing, said that the decision to ditch DRM was made alongside similar moves by its US partners, including Tor Books and Forge.
"We know that this is what many Tor authors passionately want," said Jeremy Trevathan, Pan Macmillan's fiction publisher. "We also understand that readers in this community feel strongly about this."
Tom Doherty, president and publisher of Tom Doherty Associates in the US - which publishes Tor, Forge, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen - added that authors and readers are "a technically sophisticated bunch", and DRM is a constant annoyance to them.
"It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another," he said.
Tor UK said it is now consulting with its authors about future plans and aims to start offering DRM-free e-books within the next three months.
The move has been interpreted as a watershed moment in the history of digital book publishing. Science fiction writer Charlie Stross, who is published by Tor is the US, said that, in the long term, removing the requirement for DRM will lower the barrier to entry in ebook retail, allowing smaller retailers to compete effectively with the current major incumbents.
Meanwhile, Tor author John Scalzi dismissed suggestions that people will stop buying e-books after DRM has been dropped.
"As an author, I haven't seen any particular advantage to DRM-laden eBooks. DRM hasn't stopped my books from being out there on the dark side of the internet. Meanwhile, the people who do spend money to support me and my writing have been penalised for playing by the rules," he said.
"The idea that my readers will, after July, 'buy once, keep anywhere,' makes me happy."
In his blog post, Scalzi quoted a conversation with Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor of Tor Books, in which Hayden said that Macmillan had no intention of scaling back its anti-piracy efforts. The company currently has a legal team in place to pursue major infringers.
Last year, rival publisher Penguin removed its e-books from libraries over concerns that they could be stripped of DRM and kept by the borrower without penalty.
Meanwhile, JK Rowling offers Harry Potter books DRM-free from her Pottermore store, instead using digital watermarks to discourage users from copying e-books illegally.