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Episode X: "Snake oil"

Published 4/15/15
In this installment, I speak with Kovid Goyal, the creator of calibre. Topics include the origins of calibre, reverse engineering, DRM and snake oil, predicting the future, self-publishing, the most rewarding part of his job & more.

I’m here with Kovid Goyal, the founder of calibre (stylized as undercase), a free ebook software (for both reading and creating ebooks). It’s widely-used, brand-agnostic, and available in almost 40 languages.

I respect what Kovid’s done with calibre for both personal reasons (I’ve used it to create ebooks for 0s&1s, and it’s the only service I recommend) and philosophical ones. The fact that Kovid doesn’t charge for the program (and, more specifically, that its open-source) is commendable. He’s also a champion of DRM-free (without Digital Rights Management), a stance I’m also an avid proponent of.

But we’ll get back to that in a second. Kovid is far, far away—in India in fact. To bridge the digital divide, would you kindly describe your environment? Where are you? Where in India do you live?

I'm in my bedroom-cum-office in Mumbai, one of the largest cities in the world. It's a pretty warm evening (25 C) and I'm relaxing after eating not too many hard questions please ;)

I can't promise that. Let's start off easy: Briefly, how did calibre come to be?

It started out when I bought the SONY PRS 500, the very first e-ink based reader released in the US (though not the world). At the time, I was a grad student at Caltech, with a fair bit of time on my hands. The SONY reader did not work with Linux, my OS of choice, so I decided to do something about that, and calibre was born, albeit as libprs500. This was (IIRC) October 2006.

libprs500 doesn't exactly have the same ring as calibre. Was it free from the beginning? Was there any point along the way you thought to charge for it?

It was always free an open source. In fact libprs500 was developed with the help of many of the fine folks over at I have never considered charging for calibre, it always was and still is a labor of love (programming and reading are two of my favorite things).

Can I ask if you have a day job? Do you live on the donations through Calibre?

I have worked full time on calibre for the last 6 years. The income from donations and a couple of Adsense ads on the calibre website have allowed me to do that.

That's excellent to hear. What has been the biggest challenge in creating the program? Or rather, the proliferation of it? The whole journey.

Wow, that's a rather large question...

It sure is.

I think the biggest challenge keeps changing from year to year. To start with it was teaching myself to program (I had been programming from a very early age, but not at the level something like calibre requires. calibre and I have sort of grown up together.)

Initially, there was the challenge of reverse engineering the SONY (which used a closed a proprietary USB protocol and ebook format). Then came the challenge of learning enough about Windows and OS X to make calibre available on those platforms as well.

And what about from the "business-side" (for lack of a better word)? How about getting the word out there?

I never had an issue with that. I was lucky enough to start calibre at just the right moment in history. Word-of-mouth took care of the rest. My experience has made me a firm believer in "build it (well) and they will come".

It's amazing how that works out. And that's a great motto to have. The care you've put into the program is obvious. It's not necessarily an "easy" program to use, but it's as easy as creating an ebook can be.

I want to talk about Digital Rights Management. You'll be preaching to the choir a bit here, but what is your reasoning for keeping calibre DRM-free?

DRM is snake oil. It doesn't work (indeed it cannot work). It serves only to help lock people into closed eco-systems and punish paying customers.

I couldn't have put it better, and I'm going to punish you for your succinctness. Let's unpack some of those statements. Why do you say "it cannot work"?

Ostensibly, the purpose of DRM is to prevent illegal copying of the protected material, while allowing viewing of it. However, there is no way to distinguish between a "view" and a "copy". Every time you view something, your computer is internally, making several copies of it. Therefore, as long as the user has control over his computer, you cannot prevent him from turning that view into a copy. And note that DRM has to be broken only once, by one person for everyone to be able to copy the content, trivially.

Okay. And there are two parts to the problem with DRM. The first, as you've said, is that it doesn't work. Any of your favorite books, created with DRM, can be found online to pirate for free. Now let's examine the second problem, as you put it, DRM helps "lock people into closed eco-systems and punish paying customers". How is that?

Most DRM implementations are designed to work with one (or a small number) of "supported devices". Typically, these devices come from the same manufacturer. For example, a DRM protected book from Amazon can only be read using Kindles or Kindle apps.

If tomorrow you choose to switch to a Kobo reader, you will not be able to read your previously purchased Amazon books on the Kobo, unless you remove the DRM

Agreed. So what's stopping the publishing world from adapting to this logic? Friction?

I don’t really know. If I had to guess, it would be a lack of in-depth understanding of the technical issue, plus fear.

Let's go to 5, 10, 20 years from now. Is DRM still around?

I hate predicting the future, society is too complex for me. Without giving you a yes or no answer, there are two aspects to it, as I see it. If ordinary people retain control over their computing experience, then DRM is doomed. If however, they lose this control, then it is possible that DRM will survive. I certainly hope the former outcome comes true.

Agreed. And I also agree that the fear component is large, especially among the other side of the corporate puzzle: publishers. Given profits, to them the concept of throwing away a device used to curb pirating is ludicrous. So, in a way, I understand where they come from, though I don't think it's from an informed place.

Let's zoom out a bit. What do you hope is the legacy of calibre? How do you hope you've changed (and will change) the world?

I think books, and reading, are very, very important. I believe that they are too important to be left in the hands of corporations, however, well-intentioned they may be. My goal with calibre has always been, and will continue to be, to put the reader (and author) in charge of her own books, creating and consuming and curating.

I want to ensure that ordinary people do not lose the ability to maintain their private collections of books, and that ordinary authors do not lose the ability to disseminate their books to their readers without a middleman.

That statement is strong. The difference between a world where reading is left in the hands of corporations and one where the readers/creators have full control is a) the means to proliferate (which you've provided) and b) value of what's being proliferated. As it stands, most of "talked-about" literature comes from larger publishers. I can only assume you're rooting for self-publishing to prevail. Agree? Disagree?

Yes, I strongly believe in the value of self-publishing. To me it is not important that big publishers "win" or "lose" just that self-publishers always exist and are viable.

That's a more healthy way of looking at it, perhaps. As far as where you'll be in 10, 20 years—are you taking calibre to your grave? Are there future projecs you have an eye on?

I have no idea. Ten years ago I was set on being a physicist. I would never have imagined I'd be where I am today. As far as calibre is concerned, I fully intend to continue working on it as long as I feel there is a need for it.

Before I let you go: What's the most rewarding part of the experience? I mean tangibly, what events make you very happy you've done what you have?

Receiving thank you's from people whose lives calibre has made better in a small way. And knowing that I have made a small contribution to keeping reading free and available to all without gatekeepers.

Thanks for your words, Kovid. Anything you want to leave our readers with?

Keep reading! There is nothing quite like it.

If I'm ever in Mumbai, I'll surely hit you up for a meal. Likewise for you in Gainesville, Florida or New York City.

I'll look forward to it. Given the visa hassles (I have to undergo special screening because of my background as a physicist) I doubt I'll be traveling to the US anytime soon.