e-books and DRM

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What is DRM?

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is, theoretically, a way to protect the creator of digital content, like music, documents, films and e-books, against piracy and illegal copying.

We are all aware that piracy is a big problem. It is especially scary if your writing is your primary source of income. You might not yet have the following of J.K. Rowling, but every single sale helps you to put food on the table! After all, no one blames you for locking your house or car, do they?

Protecting the rights of a musician or author is, in itself, a good thing. Irrespective of the inane arguments that copying is not the same as stealing, the creators of the relevant content can rightfully feel deprived of income which should be theirs. Even if they do not depend on it for their livelihood, there is a justified moral indignation against someone unscrupulous copying their work.

The question that needs to be answered is whether DRM does indeed help the content creators and publishers.

What Does DRM Mean to You as a Reader?

DRM is not the same as putting an innocuous “©” or “Patent pending” on the product. DRM actually interferes with how and where you use the content, let’s say the latest Michael Connelly novel, that you paid for. You might have bought it for your Kindle, and have now decided that Barnes and Noble’s Nook is the ideal e-book reader for you. Your new paid for Nook will not be able to open your paid for Connelly on your paid for Kindle. You have to buy the same book twice. This is like having to replace all your DVD’s or CD’s when replacing your Sony with an LG player.

E-book sellers like Amazon and Apple have done a good job for making the reader experience smooth even with DRM so long as you stick to their ecosystem (their devices, their apps and their store). Other players in the e-book market like Kobo, Google, and Sony use third-party DRM, notably Adobe’s DRM solution. This does allow some inter-device flexibility. But the catch is that now you need an Adobe account to register your apps and e-books, and you are dependent not only on your e-book retailer, but a third party for access to  the content you paid for.

What Does DRM Mean to You as an Author Or a Publisher?

Like it or not, DRM has not, in any way, prevented or hindered piracy. As soon as a potential best seller is published, it appears on sites such as The Piratebay with DRM removed. Even a superficial examination of The Piratebay will convince you that DRM does not protect your book. Technically, all DRM systems are breakable and those who want to, can and do break DRM. For DRM to work, as intended, anti-circumvention laws are required. These laws must also be rigidly enforced. But being too aggressive legally against potential readers and customers can alienate them, as the actions of  RIAA have often done for music buyers.

Not only does DRM not protect authors and publishers, in long run, it can actually harm them. How? DRM lets e-book retailers lock the readers in their ecosystem. Once a reader gets a Kindle and buys several e-books on it, the e-books that can be read only on a Kindle devices, she is unlikely to change her device or retailer for the next set of books. It is just too inconvenient to have books on two different devices. This gives the retailer an opportunity to monopolize the customer. Monopoly of retailers does not bode well for authors and publishers, because it take the power away from them in the value chain. Given its market share, many publishers already feel arm-twisted by Amazon on issues like pricing. The irony is that most retailers use DRM at the insistence of publishers themselves. So, in trying to protect their books from the readers, who are willing to pay for their content, publishers and authors are weakening themselves against the retailers.

Pirates Were Never Your Customers

TOR U.K., a publisher who focuses on the sci-fi and fantasy genres, removed DRM from all their books in April 2012. They did not experienced a dip in sales.  TOR U.K’s experience shows one that those who were going to buy your book will most probably buy it, even if they could pirate it very easily. Those who pirate it would never buy it anyway. So, there is no point in taking reading choices away from genuine buyers. Publishers like O’Reilly and Pragmatic Bookshelf also stand by DRM-free e-books.

Other Issues

Copyright laws often allows for exceptions when it comes to disabled readers. DRM makes it possible for retailers, or a private publisher, to prevent disabled readers to access legally bought works.

So, Should E-books Have DRM?

Effectively DRM tries to keep honest people honest, without benefiting them. Dishonest users are not really hindered. DRM has become a multi-million Dollar industry that does not benefit the authors.

Ironically, many programmers are making money by developing and selling software that can remove DRM from content.

Where is this money going then? The innovativeness of the human race is legendary. Should we not rather look for a solution that benefits those it claims to protects? We should look at making pricing, and reading experience so much better on legally bought books, that the hassle of pirating stops looking worth it to the readers. In the music industry, iTunes 99 cents pricing, selling singles, and removing DRM brought users back to paying for music. That is what we should strive to achieve even with e-books.

The primary reason why potential buyers turn to piracy is found in the restrictive application of DRM and not in their unwillingness to pay for the content in the first place! Others would never pay; so there is no point bothering about them.

An Alternative – Social DRM

The “DRM” is social DRM is misleading. It isn’t really about rights management. It’s about social pressure. Social DRM involves including some unique personal information about the buyer in the e-book file downloaded by him. The information can be as innocuous as the e-mail id, or as sensitive as the credit card number. The information should be included in such a way that it is difficult to remove. This stops people from distributing the file illegally, because that personal information identifies them as a pirate. Most people would not like to be identified as such publicly. And it also makes it possible for publishers to track the person who distributed the file to take a legal action against him.  We will discuss more about social DRM in a separate post later.


Authors’ and publishers’ trepidation against piracy is understandable, but still they should say no to DRM. It doesn’t help them.

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  1. Pingback: Amazon’s Monopoly? Publishers Doing. | InstaScribe

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