Understanding Digital Rights Management

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As an online bookseller, understanding digital rights management (DRM) is key. However, when used to prevent the unlawful distribution of ebooks, the efficacy of DRM is also not without controversy.


Here’s what you need to know.

What It Is

Said formally, DRM is a systematic approach to copyright protection for digital goods. Its purpose is to prevent unauthorized redistribution of products and restrict the ways consumers can use content they've acquired. For example, when one of your customers buys an ebook, it gets tied to the account and the device they used to make the purchase. This renders passing it along to another reader less feasible.

We say “less feasible” because as we all know, a determined hacker will make it their life’s goal to prove you wrong the moment you say something is “impossible”. Certain DRM settings also make it possible to “rent” a book with time restrictions. These are usually employed by public libraries to make books “expire” after a certain period of time has elapsed from the date it was “borrowed”. DRM also makes reprinting and copying excerpts from books more difficult to accomplish without permission.

DRM Examples

Three major DRM algorithms are currently in widespread use. Amazon has its own, as does Apple. You’ll be required to make your titles conform to their standards if you want either (or both) of them to offer your ebooks. Adobe also has one in play, which is currently favored by sellers like Barnes & Noble and Kobo. If you’re selling books online independently, you will probably go Adobe too. While it entails some rather significant upfront costs, it’s also compatible with a wider variety of user platforms. Further, Adobe-protected books can be sold from your own site, even if you don’t have your own server.  The good news is there are ways to use Adobe’s DRM without shouldering the up-front fees.

“Shaming” DRM

Also known as social DRM, the most perceptible method is the application of a digital watermark to the pages of a purchased ebook. These visible watermarks are typically comprised of the name, email address, phone number and physical address of the original purchaser. The idea is a person would be less likely to pass along a book with this personal information openly displayed. It also makes a book easily traceable back to the original purchaser. A key advantage of this form of DRM is it doesn’t require specific software to accomplish. The watermark info is captured at the time of the sale.

Is DRM Really Necessary?

Many people feel once a book has been purchased, it should be up to the owner to do with it whatever they see fit. If they want to loan it to a friend, they should have the right to do so. After all, this is exactly the case with a paper book. On the other hand, if you’re the seller, you’ll probably be happy to know everyone who reads your book has to pay for the privilege.  What’s more, it’s very easy for someone to copy a digital book and distribute hundreds of copies, while still holding on to the original. This can’t happen as readily with a paper book. Of course, given hackers have cracked the DRM codes, if somebody really wants to pirate your book, there’s little you can do to stop them.

So basically, when it comes to understanding digital rights management as it applies to ebooks, it only works on people who wouldn’t bother to pirate the work anyway. Meanwhile, dishonest people have already figured out how to beat it. This is why most detractors say all DRM really does is make it more cumbersome for honest people to get your books.


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