Thoughts on DRM in ebooks

I have written a couple of times before about issues around DRM, that is to say, Digital Rights Management on ebooks. This is the clever stuff that works out whether or not the person reading the book actually bought it, and is therefore “authorised” to read it. This is still a hotly contested issue, with both authors and publishers mostly on the pro-DRM side of things.

There is of course the ethical question: Should a novelist/publisher be able to dictate what the purchaser of a book can or can’t do with it? If they download it from Amazon to read it on their Kindle, what if they decide to get, say, a Nook or a Sony eReader and want to now read it from there? Without disabling the DRM, (then changing it into a readable format like .epub or pdf), that might be quite a challenge. And disabling the DRM is a violation of the terms you agreed to when you made the purchase.

Some argue that unless you can do what you like with the book, you don’t really own it. Others say you don’t really “own” that content anyway, and if what you’re doing is buying the rights to read the work in a specific and limited way.

Some say that ebook DRM is terrible because you can’t loan the book to a friend like a “dead-tree” copy. Others counter and say that without DRM the danger is not someone lending it to a friend, but someone making a copy that they email and send to their friend to keep forever, when they really should have paid for it. Worse, it’s a way of putting that copy up on the web so that millions of people can download it, depriving the artist of all that revenue.

I don’t want to go over these grounds too much, expect to restate what I have said before. If there is to be DRM (and we don’t see much chance of it going away in the mainstream ebook world any time soon), when it must be seamless to the user. If they can pick up pretty much any device they like to use, and read the book, then later, pick up another device, and carry on right where they left off on device one, then DRM can work. If they have to jump through hoops, then the DRM is a massive failure. And sadly, a pirated version of a book might be a better option. When that happens, everyone involved in the creative process loses.