DRM – It’s All About Lock-In

Introduction

Over the past few years I’ve been asked numerous times about my position on DRM (Digital Rights Management). Mainly I’ve been asked this by authors looking to start selling their works as ebooks. I’ve been sending the same email with more added each time in response to this and I’m tired of it. Here are my thoughts on DRM and how it is perceived by different parties. Since this relates to ebooks I’m going to focus on the publishing industry but I’m not going to ignore lessons learned by other industries.

I’m not a fan of DRM and I never recommend it to authors looking to sell their work as ebooks. If having DRM makes an author feel better or safer about selling their work as an ebook then I say do it. If DRM is what it takes to sell your work as an ebook then that’s what it takes. I would rather see ebooks with DRM than no ebooks at all. However, again I recommend against DRM. That might sound contradictory but I’m of the mind that I’ll take what I can get; something is better than nothing.

There are five major parties that are affected by DRM. Readers, stores, DRM vendors, publishers and authors. The point of DRM is to increase revenue. The most common excuse for why DRM is necessary is to prevent copyright infringement but I do not believe this is it’s true use. DRM as a tool is used to to increase revenue though lock-in.

Often you will hear that DRM protects an author’s work by preventing people from pirating content. I am not going to use the term “piracy” in this context because it does not apply. Piracy is what one of my close friends is fighting as part of the US Navy off the coast of Somalia. The act of downloading or otherwise acquiring a copyrighted work without permission of the copyright holder is copyright infringement. I am against copyright infringement and it should be stopped. I do not believe that DRM turns illegal downloads into payed downloads. This argument is a red herring used to take the focus away from DRM’s other purposes.

DRM Does Not Stop Copyright Infringement

There are many different DRM technologies used with ebooks. The biggest are Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s (B&N) Social, Adobe’s ADEPT and Apple’s Fairplay. All of these DRM schemes excluding Apple’s Fairplay have been broken. It is trivial to remove each of these from a protected ebook file. The only reason Apple’s Fairplay has not been broken is not due to it being superior to the others. It is due to all books sold in Apple’s iBooks store can be purchased in one of the many other stores that uses a circumventable DRM system. There simply isn’t any reason to put any effort into breaking Fairplay for ebooks.

Again the main reason given for why DRM is necessary is to stop copyright infringement. However, DRM has been proven to be ineffective for this purpose. For instance, the music industry has given up on selling music with DRM. Instead they are suing infringers directly. All it takes for a DRM free file to be distributed is for one person to use a point and click tool to remove the DRM from one file. Or to have acquired the file without DRM at some point in the publishing process. That one DRM free file uploaded someplace on the internet can be shared again and again.

DRM does not stop willful or blatant copyright infringement because it is too easy to get around. DRM however does stop accidental copyright infringement. Such as a parent sharing an ebook with their child. However, can this really be considered copyright infringement?

This leads to the argument that DRM stops unintended copyright infringement. I do not believe this one bit. People are not stupid. They understand that it’s not right to buy something and then turn around and give copies away for free. The concept is the same as buying a book, photocopying it then selling or handing out the photocopies. People know this isn’t right and wouldn’t do it unless it was willful.

The nature (technical) of DRM allows for removing it to be an easy process. With DRM, you are given the content, a lock and the key. You have to be provided with the key to unlock the DRM otherwise you wouldn’t be able to use the content at all. Think of it this way. The key is required to view an ebook in the ebook reading application you are provided with. All one has to do is retrieve the key from the viewing application when it opens the ebook for reading. This is what some DRM removal tools actually do. These tools are even packaged into very easy to use, zero user interaction bundles.

Thus DRM does not stop copyright infringement because it’s too easy to remove. It can be done by anyone even semi serious about unlocking their books. In the USA due to the Digital Millimum Copy Right Act (DMCA) removing DRM, in most cases, is illegal. Due to this the average user is prevented (who wants to be a criminal?) from removing DRM and must live with the limitations it places on the content they’ve legitimately purchased.

Perception of Ownership

Readers often dislike DRM due to the idea of ownership. In the case of a physical book, when you buy a book you own it. You don’t own the content or ideas within the book but you own the physical thing. You can lend, sell, move, give or burn it. The same thought is being applied to ebooks. However, DRM adds artificial restrictions that remove some of what you can do with the ebook. I say artificial because it’s an added restriction not a technical limitation of ebooks themselves.

Do you really own the ebook you buy? Many people will say yes and claim that it is no different from buying a physical book. However, sellers often do not agree with this assessment. Some sellers many claim that they are not selling books but limited access to content. This argument is not something I wish to peruse here. I’m going to take the view that when you buy an ebook you are buying the book itself and not a license to access it for a limited time and in a limited way.

When Does DRM Make Sense?

It makes sense to use DRM when there is no question about ownership. Meaning the user knows full well they do not own the content they’re buying. Two examples of this are libraries and subscription services such as Mog.

In both cases there is no perception of ownership. You know full well that you are paying for limited access. The trade off is, for libraries you are getting the work for free and for subscription services it’s typically low cost unlimited access as long as you are a subscriber.

Both models would not work without DRM because DRM is the only thing preventing the content from being kept permanently. DRM places restrictions on what you can do with a digital file. In this case the restrictions are necessary and make perfect sense. It’s not a library if you can keep the books you check out.

DRM does not make sense when ownership is not questioned. That is what I’m focusing on. When you buy an ebook it should be no different than buying a physical book. The same privileges that apply to that physical book should apply to the ebook and DRM only serves to restrict what you can do with an ebook. I’m not talking about restricting you from doing illegal things, I’m talking about restricting you from doing legal and common things with an ebook such as reading it.

Readers

There is no way to argue that DRM is a positive thing for readers. I honestly cannot think of a way that DRM does anything other than inconvenience, and annoy. Even when it’s implemented in a way that it isn’t noticed today, sometime in the future a reader will run into it and be prevented from doing something that otherwise would be perfectly legal and reasonable. There are a number of reasons why DRM is bad for readers.

The first issue is, it often locks the book to a particular device. If you buy a book from B&N for your Nook, then purchase a Kindle you cannot read that book on the Kindle. You have to re-purchase the book for the Kindle. DRM removes the ability to move books you’ve purchased from one device to another.

The second issue relates to people who have been burned by DRM. Ebooks have been around for decades. There are cases where a store or DRM provider has gone out of business. Suddenly thousands of dollars (this really has happend) worth of ebooks cannot be read because the files cannot be authorized against the DRM server. Don’t think this is a one time thing in a small industry either. This has happened in the music industry. Such as when Yahoo Music shut down. Not to mention the uproar when Microsoft tried (still going to but postponed for a bit) the same thing with MSN Music.

The second issue ties directly into the first. DRM restricts your ability to move content from one device to another. Without the store or DRM provider you cannot move content to another device. So if you get a new device (old one broke or it’s just time to upgrade) you cannot read the ebooks you currently own on the new device. Your only options are to remove the DRM (illegal in the USA) or re-buy every book you already own.

DRM gives readers a poor experience. Buying a physical book gives readers more privileges with what they can do with that that work vs buying a DRM locked ebook. Copyright infringers have a better experience than those who legally and honestly purchase an ebook. An illegal copy of an ebook does not have the restrictions added by DRM because the DRM has been removed. Obtaining an illegal copy means a reader doesn’t have to worry about any of the above issues regarding DRM. Readers shouldn’t be punished by doing the right thing and actually buying an ebook!

Stores

In the world of ebooks, stores do not set the selling price in the majority of cases. The major publishing houses have been able to force stores into what is called agency pricing. In the agency model the publisher sets the price not the store selling the ebook. Think of it like the price printed on a physical book but stores cannot deviate from that price in any way. They can’t even offer discounts or sales. What the publisher says the ebook sells for is what it must be sold for.

Since stores cannot compete with one another on price (every store is forced to sell the same ebook for the same price) they have embraced and come to love DRM. It is used as tool to prevent customers from buying ebooks from competing stores. It binds readers to a particular store and makes it difficult for them to go elsewhere.

Amazon is a prime example of this behavior (they’re no the only one but they’re the most successful). When you buy from Amazon you buy a DRM locked Kindle book. This book can be read on an Amazon Kindle, in Amazon’s PC or Mac software, or their mobile software. You cannot however read your Amazon Kindle ebook on a B&N Nook. You are tied to Amazon’s ebook platform.

The stores provide a disincentive for leaving them. Namely if you leave Amazon, for instance, to go to B&N you must leave behind all of the ebooks you’ve purchased from Amazon. You don’t lose the ebooks from Amazon but you can’t take them with you for reading on your new Nook. Readers tend to be people who have an attachment to their books. Many avid readers would not entertain the thoughts of either leaving behind their library or re-buying hundreds if not possibly thousands of books simply to change stores. It is true one could buy from Amazon and read on a Kindle then buy from B&N and read on a Nook without giving up the Kindle. However, who wants to carry two ebook readers around?

Stores are using DRM as a way to tie your ebook library to their platform. It is an economic investment that many people would think twice about leaving behind. They want to make it hard, technologically, physically, and mentally, for you to shop at a competitor.

DRM Vendors

This group profits directly from the use of DRM simply because they make their money from selling DRM systems to stores. Often these companies do more than just license DRM and also provide additional services. Content distribution is a big one. Licensing a DRM system is only a small part of the profits these companies bring in due to their DRM product.

The biggest player in this category is Adobe. Amazon doesn’t count here because they don’t license their ebook technologies to third paries. Adobe sells a complete ebook platform. DRM, content distribution, reader software for computers, readers software for embedded devices (ebook readers), and ebook authoring tools.

Companies like Adobe leverage their DRM with their customers (stores) just like stores leverage DRM with their customers (readers). They use it to create lock-in. All ebook DRM technologies are proprietary making it impossible for a store to move to another vendor without completely changing the DRM system they’re using. Changing the DRM system is a major undertaking and can easily have a devastatingly negative impact on a store’s customers. It is the hardest piece to change. If you want to use Adobe’s DRM system then you need to be using Adobe’s content distribution system. Also, if you want the ebooks you’re selling to be readable (with DRM) on a dedicated ebook reader then you need to license Adobe’s mobile reader software. Thus by using Adobe’s DRM stores are locked into using other Adobe products and are unable to use another vendor. DRM is used to not just sell related products but to prevent leaving as well.

Publishers

DRM serves two purposes for publishers. It makes them look like the good guy because they’re trying to defend the ability of authors to make money. It also provides them with a source of revenue from people re-buying books they’ve bought before.

DRM is necessary as a way to reassure authors that their work won’t be ripped off. Many authors rely heavily on their publisher. A publisher is there for handling everything aside from writing so the author can focus on what they know and do best, writing. Publishers tell authors that they need to put DRM on their work when they sell it as an ebook otherwise people will steal what they’ve written. The publisher does this to seem like they are the only ones that stand between authors and copyright infringers. I highly doubt publishers tell authors about all the various parties that make substantial amounts of money simply by putting DRM on an author’s work. Money that doesn’t always equate to an author making more themselves.

I don’t know of any evidence that shows DRM increases sales / profits or that not using DRM reduces sales / profits due to preventing copyright infringement. There are many studies out there but they are often contradictory or from questionable sources. The music industry is a good example and a great model for the ebook industry in this regard. The music industry has gone though many of the issues that the ebook industry is going though now. The music industry has moved to a DRM free model for purchases and it’s working.

A publisher is first and foremost a publicly traded company. They have a responsibility to their share holders and the share holders have a large say in the priorities and how the business is run. As such the number one priority of most business is to make their share holders as much money as possible.

The major book and now ebook publishers are not stupid. They have very smart people working for them and they understand their market very well. They look at profits based on various projections as a routine course of action. Right now requiring DRM makes them the most money. Again it has nothing to do with copyright infringement. This has everything to do with publishers knowing their customers.

Readers tend to be people who become engrossed and committed to a particular author, character or story. Moving from physical books to ebooks it’s not uncommon for readers to re-buy their favorite books. I’ve probably purchased the Lord of the Rings four or five times over the years (anniversary edition, hardcover, omnibus, ebook); I’m willing to do this because I love the story. Publishers prey on this by requiring DRM and stores are happy to comply because if the reader wants to move to a different store (or ebook reading device) the reader often must re-buy their books for the store’s associated device.

Instead of creating new editions with additional content like the Movie Industry does, with extras on DVDs and Blu-Ray releases, ebook publishers are using DRM in place of incentives for readers to re-buy the same content. There is no guarantee that DRM locked content purchased today will be readable tomorrow. There is no guarantee that DRM locked content purchased today can be moved to other or new reading devices. Often the only option is re-buying. It’s the love readers have for their favorite books that is being exploited by publishers as a way to increase revenue. It would be one things if say buying the anniversary edition of the Lord of the Rings came with a biography of J. R. R. Tolkien but it’s another thing to sell an anniversary edition that is only readable in one place or for a limited time.

Authors

The biggest fear for the average author (aside from being unknown) is having their work stolen. Writing is hard and time consuming and authors want to be compensated for their work. DRM is touted as the best way to prevent people from copying an author’s work and distributing it without compensating the author.

DRM gets an author nothing. Again, it is very easy to circumvent. Even if it were possible that DRM was unbreakable, copyright infringers will just take pictures of each page of the physical book and distribute those. This happend with the last Harry Potter book and the leaked pictures were even available on the internet a week before the book was released for sale. DRM does not protect an author’s work.

DRM is not why people pay money for ebooks. At least it’s not why people want to buy ebooks. They do it for the love of reading. If you are an author, don’t try to make it harder for your readers to actually read your work. DRM does nothing good for you and it does nothing good for your readers. The only way DRM could make you a little bit of money is the few people who will re-buy your work when they change reading devices. You’re better off giving your readers a great experience so they will want to buy more of your works than trying to sell the same thing to them twice and embittering them.

Conclusion

The big thing to remember about DRM is it can be broken. I personally see it as a way to annoy people who do the right thing and buy ebooks by making it hard for them to read the what they have bought. It does nothing for people who don’t want to pay because DRM is easily removed and they will just download it without DRM. By downloading without DRM people get a better experience since they don’t have to worry about things like will I be able to read this book on my device if I buy from store X vs store Y.

From the perspective of readers and authors DRM does nothing good and has no benefits. The other parties involved (stores and DRM vendors in particular) in the ebook selling process have a very vested interest in keeping ebooks tied down with DRM. Simply put, it makes them too much money to do away with it. My advise to authors is let readers get the most out of your work. Make them happy and don’t leave them feeling cheated.