The Perils of DRM-protected eBooksJanuary 4, 2008 at 6:42 am | Posted in eBook | 11 Comments
DRM stands for ‘Digital Rights Management’, a term describing the technology employed by publishers to prevent unauthorised duplication and distribution of copyrighted digital works (e.g. eBooks). Unfortunately in their attempts to protect their own rights, many rights of the consumer have been sacrificed along the way. This is particularly apparent when comparing a DRM-protected eBook with the traditional paperback. A paperback can be read anywhere, lent any number of times, given away and resold. A DRM-protected eBook gives you none of these rights. Heck, most don’t even let you print them.
If typical DRM restrictions were placed on a traditional paperback, then you would be forced to designate a chair for reading at purchase time. Your paperback would then be delivered to your home and chained to the said chair. Whenever you sat down to read your paperback, your mouth would be taped up so that you wouldn’t be tempted to read aloud to anyone in the room.
Perhaps the most onerous restriction in my mind is the practice of forcing you to choose a single eBook reader format at purchase time. This usually means that your eBook can only be viewed on a single mobile eBook reader or even worse, the PC that you purchased the eBook from. Amazon’s new Kindle is a classic example of this approach. On the one hand it’s a great step forward in terms of eBook reader hardware and useability. On the other, any eBook purchased for the Kindle will only ever be able to be viewed on the Kindle. What happens when a rival company develops a new reader that blows the Kindle away? You don’t want to have to re-purchase your entire library in a new format. Amazon has effectively locked you in.
Instead of reading eBooks, I prefer to use a text to speech application such as Text2Go to convert the text to an MP3 file so that I can listen to it on my iPod while commuting. However just about all DRM-protected eBooks have the ‘Read Aloud’ capability disabled. Why? Because it introduces a security hole. For someone like myself, this is merely frustrating, but what if you’re blind or visually impaired. Being able to purchase any book in digital form and have it read to you would be wonderful.
On the other side of the coin, authors and publishers need to be fairly compensated for their work. There could be nothing worse than spending months and months writing a novel, only to find it freely available all over the net, days after its release. One approach is to provide DRM-free eBooks and place full trust in the consumer. Consumers really appreciate this and I suspect that very few would ever dream of distributing any of the works that they’ve purchased. The most well-known example of this model is Baen Books, which I’ve mentioned before.
Another approach which I am also comfortable with is providing an encrypted file that contains the eBook and some information that identifies the purchaser. To view the eBook, the purchaser simply enters a password. As long as they are granted full rights to print, copy, and read aloud the text, this is not too onerous. The fact that the eBook contains information identifying the purchaser will be enough to discourage honest people from distributing it. One important caveat of this DRM approach is the eBook format used. It must be stored in an open format that can be viewed on any PC or mobile reader device. It must not use a proprietary format that locks you into a particular device or reader.
As a software publisher, this is the approach I use to protect Text2Go. When someone purchases Text2Go, they are given a license file that contains a key to unlock Text2Go and some details of the purchaser such as their name, address and email. This license file is not locked to a particular PC so Text2Go can be installed on any PC they use. To discourage the distribution of license files, the user’s personal details are encrypted in the file. This makes it pretty easy to see where the license file came from if it turns up on the internet. The other service that I provide is to re-issue a license file free of charge on request. This provides a safeguard in cases such as a hard drive failure or a stolen laptop.
It’s interesting to see the change in stance to DRM in the music industry, most notibly the introduction of DRM-free MP3 tracks at iTunes and the release of Radiohead’s new album ‘In Rainbows’ where the consumer could pay what they liked to download the entire album.
I hope the same trend will occur with eBooks. In the meantime, there are a lot of great sources of DRM-free eBooks.