Random House Audio abandons audiobook DRM

Random House Audio — a division of Bertelsmann, one of the largest publishing conglomerates in the world — has announced that it will now allow its audiobooks to be sold without DRM by all of its online retailers. In the announcement, Random House notes that they've been running a DRM-free audiobook program with eMusic for months, and that none of the pirate editions of their audiobooks online came from those DRM-free editions; rather, they've come from DRM'ed editions that were cracked, and from ripped CDs. I know, I know — duh. But how freaking cool is it to have a publisher come out and say that in public?

I'm especially pleased about this because I've been doing a couple of little publishing deals with various Random House divisions. The German division publishes translations of my novels in Germany and Austria, while Random House Audio is doing the audiobook version of my forthcoming novel, Little Brother. My agent had negotiated a one-off no-DRM deal with them for that edition, but now it seems like everyone's going to have the same option: authors who don't want DRM won't be forced by Random House to include it.

The big question-mark is hovering over Audible, recently acquired by Amazon. I love the range and selection and pricing of Audible's titles, but I got majorly hosed when I switched to Linux and had to spend a month converting my giant, expensive Audible collection to DRM-free MP3s. When my agent started shopping the audio rights for Little Brother, I was shocked to discover that Audible refused to release any books without DRM — even if the author didn't want it — and that they had the exclusive contract to supply audiobooks to the iTunes Store.

Amazon's gone on record saying that they'll kill Audible's DRM if the public makes a big enough stink. With Random House going DRM-free, you gotta wonder if Amazon will do the right thing and follow.

Since our decision has been based in part on our experience with eMusic, I would like to share those
results with you. EMusic started selling audiobooks mid-September, and their program has been a
success, with strong sales every month since launch. Since they sell content only in the MP3 format
(in other words, without DRM), our goal was to find out if allowing them to sell our content would
lead to any increase in illegal filesharing. For tracking purposes, we watermarked all of the eMusic
files and then hired a piracy watchdog service to monitor and report back to us if any of our titles
appeared on the major filesharing networks. We tracked a mix of popular titles, including some that
were not available through eMusic. Because piracy is already a fact of life in the digital world, what
we were interested in finding out was not whether piracy exists, but rather whether there is any
correlation between DRM-free distribution and an increased incidence of piracy.

The results: we have not yet found a single instance of the eMusic watermarked titles being
distributed illegally. We did find many copies of audiobook files available for free, but they did not
originate from the eMusic test, but rather from copied CDs or from files whose DRM was hacked. It
is worth noting that these results are entirely consistent with what the music industry has found
in the last six months. After conducting their own tests with Amazon, Walmart.com and others, the
major labels have reached the conclusion that MP3 distribution does not in itself lead to increased
piracy, they are now moving their entire catalogs to this approach.

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