Why not DRM

Why not DRM

By: Ori Idan, Helicon books CEO.


DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. This supposed to be a method for publishers to make sure their customers will be the only users reading the book (or listening to music) and preventing them from making illegitimate copies. Sounds great isn't it?
Yes, from the perspective of a non technical publisher or author this may sound the best thing after the invention of the digital book.
In this article I would like to discuss the flaws in DRM and why in my opinion it is actually harming the legitimate customer and that is I am sure not what publishers or authors want, I will also show why it can potentially harm the publisher or author.

Overview of DRM

 First let me try to briefly explain how DRM works.There are many methods of DRM so this explanation is very simplified. I will try to do it as non technical as possible.

A DRM book (or song) is stored in an encrypted file, so that the user downloading it can only read it (or play it) in a software or device that can decrypt it. this is the first generation of DRM, the second generation is even more restrictive, it is tries to control exactly what the user does with the file so that he/she can only read (or play) and not copy, or give him/her the rights for a limited time only (like a library).
I guess that until now it still sounds great right? So why do I oppose DRM?

Well, let's start with the fact that DRM is actually Digital Restrictions Management and not Rights, it restricts what the legitimate user can do. If I buy a standard book I can give it to my friends as a gift or just lend them. I can make copies of it for backup, I can read it where ever I want with what ever reader I like.

With DRM I can only do what the publisher has decided I can do so I in essence am not actually buying the book, I am paying for a certain right. That is Ok as long as we know that we are paying only for these certain rights, but this does not stop here.

A user with enough technical expertise can bypass these restrictions by removing the encryption so he/she can copy the book or actually do what ever they want with it. So what happened here is that the legitimate user is restricted and the illegitimate user is not restricted and can make copies of it and even sell it.

DRM technologies are becomming harder and harder to bypass. However, make no mistake, there is no system that can not be broken.
History shows that most DRM algorigthms are bypassed within two or three month time. So if there is enough interest in a certain book, within two or three month there will be illegitimate copies of that book around. The only way to keep a book DRM protected is to somehow replace the DRM algorithm or encryption keys every two month or so. This of course make the DRM very expensive and in turn makes the book even more expensive.

Another restriction is that in most cases, the user can only read the book on one reader device or software so let's say a customer buys books from two different stores using different methods of DRM. That user must have two different applications or devices to read books, the user has to work with two different user interfaces, and it also make it harder to look for certain book in his/her library.

Adobe tried to solve this by licensing their DRM method, but the licensing is expensive for both reading software vendors and publishers, this causes the books to be more expensive for the customers. With Adobe DRM, you actually don't download the book, you get a small file called .acsm file that the software sends adobe server that in turn sends the actual file but the file is again encrypted, encrypted in a method that can be decrypted with a certain key that the user must have.
Sounds complicated? Yes it is complicated and thus has many failures points.

Another thing worth noting is that in today's consumer electronics market, users upgrade their hardware every 2-3 years, reader devices are consumer electronics so if you are restricted to one platform, you must also upgrade the application when you upgrade the hardware, but what if your software vendor has decided he does not upgrade the reader software? you might be stuck with books that can not be read.

If you did not have DRM you can simply switch readers and manufacturers, that is another reason why DRM restrics legitimate user's freedom.

Summary of restrictions DRM restricts you:

  • A user buying a book (or song) has by law what is called "fair use" i.e. the right to copy the content under certain circumstances, or the right to use a small part of it in another creation.

  • DRM requires you to read in one reading application not necessarily your favorite application.
  • Some DRM systems requires constant internet connection.
  • With DRM you can not usually give a book as a gift.
  • DRM can be bypassed by technical savvy people and later redistributed.
  • DRM should be lightweight and user friendly but they never are. In order to be harder to break, they get more and more complex.
  • DRM is expensive and this in turn causes the book to be expensive.

Why would it be better for the author to distribute without DRM?

And now my own personal view of why me as an author distribute my books free of DRM and will never add DRM to my books. I would actually like people to copy my books. It probably sounds strange right?
Yes, I know but what I mean is that suppose one user copies it and give it to his friend, the friend if he likes it may come later and buy another book, while if he did not get the first book, he may never have got to like my writing and buy the second book.

I also know that there is no method that is absolutely uncrackable so a sophisticated technical person will be able to bypass any mechanism I will add and be able to copy it, while the legitimate user who is not technical enough will be limited. So why limit a non technical user?

Since DRM is expensive, we have to ask ourself how much do we really loose if our books are not protected by DRM?

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