Bits from the Digital Editor: DRM and Your eBooks (or not)

by Jessica Mifsud

Published at 2013-05-30


eBooks are a hot discussion topic among publishers and readers these days, but it's not always good press about the benefits of pre-ordering the next Dan Brown book. In fact, eBooks are often prone to sparking an awful lot of controversial discussions. On one front, we see the perpetual war where eBooks and print books compete with each other for higher sales numbers and legitimacy, each trying to outlast the other. But even within Team eBook, there is civil war going on between digital enthusiasts over the issue of DRM.


As we’ve already discussed in a previous entry, DRM (or "digital rights management") is an extra bit of information attached to your eBook that stipulates who can read a particular copy of the file, where, and when. Basically, it makes sure that if you buy a book from Amazon, the only place you can read it is on a computer, eReader, or mobile device that belongs to YOU, and is registered to your account with Amazon.


The usual reasoning for this is to protect the content of an eBook from being pirated. If you try to send a DRM-protected eBook to your friend Nick, he won’t be able to open it, nor will any friends he tries to send it to. There are ways for readers to get around DRM files, but according to the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty (affectionately known as the WIPO Copyright Treaty or the WCT for short), adopted by the United States and most developed countries in 1996, it is a criminalized activity to do so.

It's important to mention here that it's up to the publisher to choose whether or not to add DRM protection to a given file. Before this step, which is usually done by the distributor, eBook files are DRM-free and easily sharable. The second important thing to note is that the DRM cannot be removed by the publisher once it is in place. Legally, it's only the distributor who places the DRM protection — in the case of this example, that's Amazon — who can remove it without penalty. So even if you're the author or publisher, once the file has been DRM-encrypted, there's not much you can do about it.


DRM: Worth It?


With all this in mind, you can see how there would be two sides to the DRM debate. On one hand, there are the publishers, distributors, and authors who are anxious to protect their content from piracy. On the other hand, there are the readers; independent, self-published, and forward-thinking authors; and a handful of publishers who are keen to see their works widely read, even at the possible expense of losing a few sales.


The theoretical upside for the publishers and authors is that using DRM means more sales. Since you can't lend out your digital copy of Inferno as it is bound to your account via DRM, your friends will have to buy copies of their own to get in on the literary action. Distributors, of course, need to run their businesses, and so for them DRM also makes sense. In a recent Digital Book World interview, Kobo CEO Mike Serbinis talks about how most publishers who work with Kobo "choose to apply DRM" to their eBooks. He also notes that:


... regardless, the behavior around eBooks, I’ve found with respect to DRM and piracy, has largely to do with price and convenience. Where eBooks are very expensive and through a combination of factors it’s inconvenient, piracy is crazy. Where it is convenient and prices are low, there’s almost no piracy.


Maybe Yes, Maybe No


Extrapolating a little, we can say that since a distributor's job is to make sure an eBook is as easy to acquire and access as possible, a distributor can use their pricing model and website to keep piracy down, and therefore whether your book is DRM-encrypted or not shouldn't matter much except to the distributor.


The other side of the fence, however, argues that it does. Let's picture a household of avid readers. What DRM means for them is that even if everyone in the house has the same type of eReader, they would still have to pay for multiple copies of the same book because DRM-encrypted files can't be shared. In their minds, if you can lend a print book to as many people as you like, you should be able to do the same with an eBook.


We can also look to the example of Canadian author and tech geek Corey Doctorow, who discusses the pros and cons of DRM (spoiler: he is firmly on the con side) in this article from 2012. Notably, the article uses the example of TOR publishers in the United States and the United Kingdom – who made the decision to take the DRM encryption off all their titles last May – as a springboard to discuss why other publishers should follow suit. Doctorow has been outspoken about copyright issues for years, and has long been allowing readers to download copies of his books for free on his website. The thought process goes that anyone should be able to read these books, and those folks who like them enough will purchase a physical copy of their own.

These kinds of efforts on behalf of authors, and anyone else who leaves their books unencrypted, are still being made in an attempt to combat book piracy. There are websites where, yes, you can download a copy of pretty much any book you like for free. I don't know where they are, because every time someone tries to tell me I cover my ears and say "Lalalalala!" But they do exist. However, the pirated goods you’ll find there may not be treasure: these books may be in any format from PDFs, to "cracked" ePub files (which means a file that formerly had DRM attached until it was illegally removed), to poorly scanned advanced reading copies. This supports Doctorow's point that if someone wants it for free that badly, they'll find a way to get it.


Next Time...


Now that we've talked about both sides of DRM encryption, we can see that the notion of copyright looms large in the background, like some kind of pink elephant. In the next installment of Bits from the Digital Editor, we’ll talk a little bit about how copyright law is affecting eBooks the world over, and especially in libraries. Until next time!