Thursday, June 28, 2012

DRM - Is Digital Rights Management Right For You?

In the case of e-books, Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a type of technology, also known as a digital lock, employed by publishers to control how an e-book is used after it has been purchased. But digital copy protection has been around in software and gaming circles for much longer than in the publishing industry, and it is from these sectors that the greatest criticisms, and lessons learnt, can be found.

Firstly, the point of DRM (and the benefits of using it) is to protect your e-book from unauthorised sharing, copying, or resale – in other words, it protects your copyright. Or does it?

According to critics who have been through the same issue in the gaming and other software industries, DRM is ridiculously easy to crack (i.e. hacking for negative purposes), and is also a target for crackers who enjoy the (albeit apparently slight) challenge of disabling a digital lock. The worse news, however, is that once the digital lock on your book has been cracked the file is usually made available outside of legitimate sales platforms, where downloads don’t count towards any bestseller lists or your bank account. It’s actually more effective to include a simple line of text in your book to encourage readers to ensure they have downloaded a legitimate copy.

Digital Rights Management also inconveniences many of your legitimate readers. It often restricts the device on which the book can be read, although it appears that this complaint has been heard, if not properly addressed yet. DRM activation sometimes affects whether the purchaser is legally entitled to create back up copies of an e-book or software. Some software users have discovered that they are required to re-purchase a licence to use the same software if they have a hard drive failure or buy a new computer, while others tell horror stories of DRM websites going offline, without warning and indefinitely, leaving customers unable to access software or other digital products they have purchased. Could what happened to Borders happen to Amazon or Barnes and Noble? Or Smashwords?

In the e-book world, DRM, in effect, means that someone purchases a licence to read your book; they don’t actually own the file that they save to their device or computer the way they would own a copy of a printed book. Licences can be revoked for whatever reason, or the platform or device the licence is tied to could become obsolete and readers could find their files corrupted or deleted without notice. Imagine building up an e-book library and then discovering that digital moths have eaten your books.

As with most things in life, the more complex you try to make something the more can go wrong. Ultimately authors (and publishers) will need to weigh up whether activating DRM is the right option for them, or whether they want to keep things simple and avoid DRM dramas.

What experiences have you had with DRM, as an author or as a reader? Tell us about it in the comments!

Elsa Neal
Elle Carter Neal is the author of Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin, a science-fantasy novel for teens and tweens. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at or


  1. Thanks for the post, Elle. This just reinforces what I have heard from some other bloggers and from some writers' lists I belong to. People always seem to worry about their work being stolen and do all kinds of things to prevent it. In the "olden days" folks fretted over copyrights and were hesitant to send a manuscript to be considered for publication in case that publisher would just steal it. Granted work does sometime get stolen, but that happens so rarely that it is not worth worrying about.

  2. Gah! The moths that tried to eat my yarn stash were bad enough. Electronic moths might send me right over the edge!

  3. Indeed, Maryann. I read somewhere that submitting a ms with "Copyright" all over it marks one as an amateur in the publishing industry. I wonder whether, in years to come, DRM will mark users as paranoid amateurs, too.

    Audrey, yikes! You've just reminded me to go and check my yarn stash! Here's to no moths, real or electronic.

  4. DRM sounds like it would very beneficial to authors, and yet apparently it isn't in all cases. Hmm. Something to ponder.

  5. It's frustrating, isn't it, Helen?

    It would work if it deterred the people who would steal content, and didn't inconvenience honest people.

  6. Elle, thanks for this cogent explanation. I'd heard of this controversy, strewn across many hastily scanned articles, but I think I have a better handle on it now. I love your conclusion that the more complex something is, the more can go wrong. How true!

  7. Thanks, Kathryn. I spent a lot of time reading a number of those articles and opinions in researching this post and wrapping my head around it. I'm glad I was able to distill the gist of it into a piece that makes sense.

  8. Tada! This is post #1,100. Good job, team. ;)

  9. As to digital theft - happens all the time. Now it appears scraping has morphed into "legitimate" online e-papers that pull feed from various sites around a theme - without permission of the original blogger/writer. I also question fair use on many blogs and e-letters in which substantial portions of the post are nothing more than copied information from other sites. I don't think just barely skirting plagiarism is very noble. IMPO.

  10. The way we handle DRM at punctum books is by offering all of our publications in two formats: we sell our texts in physical form to anyone who wishes to purchase and own a tangible copy, but we also offer all of our works as free downloads under a Creative Commons license.

    This is an effective method for us, since we believe that knowledge and information should be available for free. We still sell enough books to all of the wonderful people who want to own a copy they can write marginalia in or just have on their bookshelves.

  11. It is up to each author when they choose to upload their own book on e-book sites like Kindle and Nook. Your book can be pirated anyway. I choose "no" so that readers aren't limited to a specific device. But there are pros and cons.

  12. I recently attended the Novelists, Inc. conference which was full of industry professionals sharing their expertise. Bottom line seemed to be that DRM was a waste, and if anything, it hurt sales.

  13. Wow, one more layer of technological gibberish to hurt poor homey's head ... but thanks anyway, Elle, I wouldn't have ventured into on my own.

  14. I have mixed emotions about DRM. I have not enabled it for my self-published ebooks, mainly because, right now, I'm better served by more people reading the books to get my name out there. How they get them is somewhat less important. I can see where an author who is already a going concern and making a living at it would feel differently.

    1. Part of the "problem" is that the people who frequent and download from pirate sites are never going to be your customers, so you're not really losing sales. Plus a lot of those pirate sites are just phishing for credit card information; they don't even have the book files. The best advice I got was "Write the next book."


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