DRM: A TeleRead primer

In a number of discussions I have had on different forums, I have mentioned "DRM" without expanding the acronym—it has become a term I use as a matter of course. Although it probably shouldn't, it always startles me whenever someone asks, "But what's DRM?"

In an effort to explain, I am writing this primer. It will go up in TeleRead's "guides" section when we have it up. Until then, a regular post is as good a place for it as any. Any proposed feedback/corrections/additions will be welcomed. (Note that the purpose of this guide is to provide a basic grounding. It does not go into things like the tri-yearly exceptions to the DMCA to avoid confusing people as much as possible.)

What is DRM?

DRM officially stands for “Digital Rights Management.” (Some DRM opponents refer to it as “Digital Restrictions Management,” “Don’t Read Me,” or worse. Although they do have a point, this can lead to confusion.) It is often used interchangeably (but not quite correctly) with “encryption” to describe the measures used to prevent casual copying of electronic media such as books, movies, or music.

It is the position of TeleRead that DRM is undesirable—inconvenient at best, and ineffective at worst.

Why DRM?

Ever since Napster kicked off the peer-to-peer filesharing era, publishers of media such as computer games, music, movies, and books have been concerned about releasing their products in electronic formats such as MP3s, video files, and electronic books.

Unlike a physical book, computer files can easily be copied and shared. The publishers fear that consumers will share their files with their friends or even total strangers. They believe that each shared file means one fewer sale and that much less income earned for them.

The publishers’ solution was to encrypt each book so that it could only be read by one (or just a few) devices, based on a key—something unique about those devices that other devices would not share. Under this scheme, only a person who paid for a particular book file would be able to open it. He would also be prevented from making copies of it, sharing it with friends, or converting it to different formats (for example, printing it out to read away from the screen).

What’s Wrong With DRM?

On the face of it, DRM would seem like a good idea: producers get paid, consumers get the book, everybody is happy. However, DRM comes with a number of unintended (or, depending on how cynical you are, intended) consequences that make it a less than perfect solution for the consumer—and not necessarily good for the producer, either.

Under US copyright law, there are exceptions to copyright called “fair use.” Among other things, fair use means that you are allowed to make copies of media that you own, for personal uses such as “space shifting,” even if the producer of the media does not want you to. If you bought a Metallica CD and want to listen to the music on your iPod, you are legally permitted to copy the music from the CD to your computer, then to copy it again into your iPod—and there is nothing Metallica can do to stop you.

But DRM prevents any sort of copying at all, except the copying that the producer allows (if any). If you buy an e-book in Secure Mobipocket format, you can only open it in official Mobipocket-branded readers (that you specified when you bought the book). If you want to read the e-book on a computer that does not have an official Mobipocket-branded reader available, you are out of luck.

And it gets worse.

The DMCA and You

In 1998, the United States Congress passed a law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This law criminalized breaking encryption on any media—even media that you have purchased. In conjunction with the restrictions on copying put in place by most DRM, this means that are legally prevented from making fair use of e-books you purchase.

Although this law is limited to the United States, a number of other countries have similar laws. (Some do not. If you are concerned, you should find out what the relevant laws are in your area.)

In some cases, this is not necessarily a major handicap. Some DRM, such as that in Fictionwise’s eReader format, is fairly permissive. But if you find even the permissive DRM too onerous, you are still legally restricted from removing it.

Of course, for most people who choose to remove encryption, this legal restriction will only ever be theoretical in nature; if you do remove encryption in the privacy of your own home, it is not likely that anybody will ever know about it unless you then distribute the unencrypted file, or brag about it in a public forum.

DRM Does Not Work

Aside from its restrictions to fair use, DRM has another critical flaw: it does not work. It entirely fails to meet the publishers’ requirement of preventing any illicit copying of books. There are two reasons for this failure:

1. DRM Cannot Cover Ink and Paper

Any book that is published as ink printed on paper is already beyond protection. If it can be read by human eyes, it can also be read by a scanner or digital camera coupled with optical character recognition software. J.K. Rowling refused to release the Harry Potter novels as e-books citing piracy concerns, but each of the later books in the series was circulating complete on the Internet within hours of its publication.

2. DRM is Easily Cracked

Every extant DRM system for e-books is vulnerable to cracking. In fact, most of them already have been cracked. Microsoft Reader, Mobipocket, and eReader all have cracks circulating on the Internet that can easily be found with search engines.

Although they require some technical expertise to use, in the hands of those who know how they render DRM entirely ineffective. The DMCA is not a deterrent to those who know they will never be caught, and it only takes one cracked copy of a book for a perfect copy of the book to circulate on peer-to-peer networks.

Faced with these facts, sometimes DRM providers will fall back to the position that DRM is not supposed to prevent all copying, but is meant to “keep honest people honest.” Security researcher Ed Felten’s response to these claims is instructive. Others add that DRM forces honest people to be dishonest in that they must break the law (by removing the DRM or downloading an illicit copy from peer-to-peer) to make full use of the media they have already paid for.

3. DRM is Vulnerable to Business Failure

Another problem with DRM is that continued access to DRM-restricted materials often relies on the continued existence of the business that sold the DRM-restricted goods. This is most true for music and movie providers whose players have to “phone in” to servers before playing a given music or movie track (Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have all been forced to keep DRM servers running or refund customers after planning to shut down DRMed music or movie sales divisions), but can affect e-books as well, to a lesser extent.

Case in point: Embiid, a small e-book publisher who sold electronic versions of books published by Meisha Merlin, went out of business in 2006. People who had bought e-books from them were advised to download and back up the books they had purchased and reader software before the server closed down. After that, they would no longer be able to download these materials.

To be fair, none of the current major e-book DRM scheme backers (Microsoft, Adobe, Amazon/Mobipocket, and Fictionwise/eReader) seems likely to go out of business right away—but then again, neither did Bear Stearns until it happened.

4. DRM is Unnecessary

As a number of businesses that sell e-books with no DRM have shown, leaving DRM off does not appear to cause any decrease in sales. Most notably, Baen Books has achieved great success with its Free Library, Webscriptions sales, and bind-in CDROM giveaways without appearing to be in any danger from lost sales to illicit copying. In fact, there seem to be fewer instances of unauthorized Baen e-book trading than of other publishers who are more restrictive.

Likewise, Fictionwise sells a number of books in unencrypted “multiformat” versions.

5. DRM Limits Consumer Choice

Mobipocket is an e-book vendor and software provider owned by To this point, they have refused to release a version of their Mobipocket e-book reader, the only software allowed to open DRM-protected Mobipocket documents, for the iPhone platform. (There is some speculation that is preventing them from doing so, wishing to suppress competition to their Kindle device.)

iPhone owners who have purchased or who would like to purchase DRM-protected Mobipocket books will be unable to read them on their iPhones unless they break the law by removing the encryption.

6. DRM is Expensive

DRM is not added to books for free. There are costs associated with developing and implementing DRM that are, in turn, passed on to consumers in the form of price increases on the books. This unwanted and unnecessary “protection” costs at a minimum thousands of dollars and more likely tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in money that could be better spent in other sectors of the economy.

7. DRM Adds Unnecessary Technical Complexity

Some media, such as some selected DVDs, are manufactured with intentional defects as a form of protection. These DVDs are made in such a way as to have errors that most DVD players can detect and compensate for, but some—such as those inside computers—choke on. Even if they do not have such errors, they represent an additional point of failure in the chain connecting the reader to the content—one more thing that can go wrong.

For More Information

For more information on DRM and why it is ineffective and undesirable, see the first two essays in Cory Doctorow’s Content (read in HTML here). Eric Flint has spoken vociferously against DRM in his “Prime Palavers” on the Baen Free Library, and will again cover DRM in his column in the February issue of Jim Baen’s Universe. There are also a number of articles in TeleRead’s DRM category

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23 Comments on DRM: A TeleRead primer

  1. Chris, what a useful post! I’d love to see similar ones on other e-book basics. What a shame that DRM is a “basic” these days.


  2. Yes, a very clear explanation. I would actually buy a lot more material (music & books) if the DRM was removed. I buy classical music from a site with no DRM and , oddly enough, never feel an overwhelming desire to share it over the internet! Not so lucky was a friend who bought from Another Place (which I won’t mention!) and lost the lot when her Ipod was stolen.

  3. Very Interesting post.

    One point you left out is that DRM also allows publishers to shut out something they hate, the resale market.

    By using DRM, their buyers can no longer resell their books once they finish reading, allowing them to prop up the price of the eBook edition as there is no competition from used copies as there is for paper books.

    And the point about “keeping Honest people Honest” is the most galling part. It can be very irritating for someone who paid for a book, music, move etc in digital format to see that they can do LESS with their purchase then if they just pirated it.

    While most people are honest, throwing roadblocks in their way is not going to endear them them to you. It only chips away at their desire to do business with you. And once the customer has to find ways to crack DRM to use their purchased content in perfectly legal ways (i.e. format shift boos or DVD’s), next time they might wonder why they should bother buying the legal version in the first space.

    A good example is the Videogame industry, where PC gamers have found that it is often easier to just Buy the Game and install a crack to get around “Security Features” then try to get it them to install properly. Many of those people then decide why should they bother buying the game in the first place.

  4. Same with auto locks. Cars are easy to jimmie open, and it only hurts legitimate owners when they lose the key. Doorlocks need to go away.

    (I’m being facetious, of course. Anti-theft protections don’t need to be perfect to be useful.)


  5. On my car, the lock protects *me*, the owner of the car, not the manufacturer. And I can “back up” my key easily (as most drivers do) without needing the permission of the manufacturer. So the lock protects my investment against thieves– what’s not to like, from the customer’s standpoint?

    On a DRM’d book, the lock protects the manufacturer, not me. I can’t back up the lock, or the book, and am dependent on the good will (and continued existence) of the manufacturer to ensure that I can continue to get access to the book. So the lock puts my investment at risk (and to carry the analogy forward, I the customer, am assumed to take the place of the thief in the car example). What’s to like, from the customer’s standpoint?

  6. As an epublished author this is a topic near and dear to my pocketbook.

    Many folks look at the “publisher” and figure so what if I download that pdf file of Lynn’s new book and then stick it out on a file sharing site (pirate site to us authors), where it’s then downloaded hundreds to thousands of times? (most in pdf format)

    Well, small publishers care, and so do I. Each one of those stolen books is money that I don’t recieve for my work.

    You can equate pirated ebooks with library books, but trust me, that won’t get you far. One copy shared one at a time vs one copy shared thousands of times. Nope.
    That dog won’t hunt.

    On one site alone, one of my ebooks was downloaded, without my or my publishers consent or a single dime paid to us, over 400 times. And I’m not even one of the big name authors who have thousands of copies of one book downloaded.

    These sites are “free”. No one pays a dime to download, but there are advertisers on every page, giving ad money to the hosts of these massive sites.
    Trust me, someone is getting paid, but it isn’t me, my publisher, my cover artist, my editor or my line editors.

    I have no idea what the solution is, but “honest” people seem to have no qualms about stealing my books, yet they’d never go into B&N and steal books off the shelf there.

    Placing files on your personal equipment is one thing, sharing them with the world another.
    How do we stop that?

    While DRM might not be the optimal solution, it’s one way to slow down the illegal downloading and sharing of copywrited materials, such as music and ebooks.

  7. I just came across this site, Lynn, if you price your books about $1 or $2, it is probable that at least 15% of the thousands who apparently are downloading from pirate sites (what is the actual figure?) might buy it? You could also have a custom edition which lets them personalize the book with a dedication and author signature for a higher price (comparable to the $6 you are offering).

  8. It would be interesting to see the math for the following:
    What if content publishers spent the money they put into DRM into fighting the major piracy websites/rings. If you can keep those networks in check then you don’t have to worry about DRM. Plus, penalizing a user is bad, whereas penalizing those who are actively (and openly) enabling distribution of illegal items is understandable.

  9. DRM also involve significant social costs, such as increased government involvement and laws restricting personal freedoms and privacy.

  10. Excellent post Chris! Unfortunately a very lame, self serving and unconvincing response by Lynn (nothing personal !)

  11. Self-serving? Why should I, an author, write a book, pay all the expenses to get that book into a usable eBook format, only to have some jerk upload it for free to the internet? My costs and time are in excess of several thousand dollars spent. My revenue once the book hits the internet for free? Zero.

    My books are like my children. If I see a wart, I take care of it. If the world changes and my text is no longer accurate, I can change my teachings. But, if the book is out in the wild, for free, with no control over it, how can I change it? How can I afford to change it?

    How can I make more books, when I no longer have the income to create it? Do I expect others to give me their time for free, or to make donations? Umm, no. No income source here.

    I understand what people want on the internet is good content for free. However, my landlord doesn’t share that concept. He wants his rent check, on time, every month, and he’s already read my book. My grocer feels the same way, he wants money for the groceries I buy, and he doesn’t want to read my book, nor will he accept my book for payment. So I have to get income in order to eat and have a roof over my head.

    I don’t have ads on my website. I find them annoying and like many people, have blocked them anyways. I wouldn’t get any money from them, so why bother. No income source there.

    So I have to get a real job and sit in a cubicle all day. Income source here, but, no time for writing books.

    It’s really the consumer’s choice. More books, but one gets to pay for them, or, a few books, but they’re free.

  12. With sincere respect, ‘author’, I do not understand how a rational person could read the article above and then write such a comment. I suspect that the truth is you didn’t really read it. Because it lays out in crystal clear language a whole plethora of reasons why you are thoroughly and comprehensively wrong. Well intentioned, but utterly wrong.
    I am not going to waste more of your time and mine explaining why. I simply ask you, for your own self interest, to read it properly and with an open mind. DRM is bad for authors, bad for Publishers and worse for readers. It’s days are numbers and we will all party here at Teleread when that happens.

  13. All very interesting points…that completely glaze over the simple fact that ‘people’ are reproducing ‘copyrighted’ material WITHOUT permission of the author and without ‘due compensation’ to said author. Just because a particular ‘format’ lends itself to easy copying doesn’t make any less a violation.

    If I am missing the point, then please offer an alternative method to protect ‘my right’ to protect ‘my intellectual property, my hard work, my talent, my effort, and my investment’ that I may be DULY COMPENSATED for any or all the above.

  14. Funny how there’s no way to tell the difference between illegal infringement and perfectly legal fair use until a court of law looks at any given instance, isn’t it?

  15. Actually, it’s not that hard: The difference happens when copies have been illegally distributed; the extent to which the courts act depends on the known or potential extent of distribution. Most cases boil down to that, which is as it should be.

  16. What I was referring to is the process of “space-shifting”–creating a backup copy or a format-shifted copy for use on another device oneself, not for distribution. Legal precedents support the idea that converting CDs to MP3s is fair use, which in turn suggests converting a Kindle book to EPUB for reading on a Linux hand-held (or, for that matter, scanning and OCR’ing a paper book into an e-book) would be as well. But some people continue to insist that sort of thing is infringement…

  17. You are of course absolutely correct Chris. Despite the many claims on the subject, the truth is that the law has not been determined at this point and what case law exists, indicates in favour of the user. Reasonable and fair usage point to these actions being completely legal.
    The corollary to this is of course the fact that the declaration in law of something as being illegal is in no way a determining factor, in and of itself, on people’s behaviour. The outrageous and unreasonable copyright laws that we endure right now are daily being ignored in their extreme interpretations by a public that knows when a law is irrational and unfair. This will not change with eBooks despite the hysteria.

  18. Great article and great thought provoking responses. I submit my behavior as a consumer of electronic media…

    Okay, my behavior with eBooks. I have a kindle 3, a blackberry with kindle & nook readers, a MacbookPro and Windows computers with B&N Nook and Kindle ebook software, and acrobat reader. I read on all of these devices. I download free ebooks from B&N and Amazon whenever I have the chance. I pay little attention to the author or content. I also download free, out of print, DRM-free ebooks. When I see a particular author – either on Facebook or one of my favorites – offer an ebook for $.99, I will buy those books. Right now, I have over 500 books available on my various devices and I always have something to read. I can’t imagine EVER spending more that $2.99 for an ebook. Why? Because it feels like a rental. Because of DRM, I have no ability to share, backup, sell or gift my copy of the book. I also have no ability to use the book on the reader of my choice, I have to use the reader through which it was purchased… if I was going to read it for a second time, I know there’s a risk that title may no longer be available to me. It feels to me, as a consumer, as if it is a rental. When I purchase a hard copy book I get my own copy, with cover art, book jacket, all in color :), with all the abilities to share, sell, gift.. and especially, put it up on my shelf and never worry about someone going out of business interfering with my ownership of the book.

    I’m not suggesting that everyone feels or acts the way I do, I’m only displaying my actions as a consumer.

    An author friend of mine wrote a book, went through all the trials and tribulations of editing, artwork, etc. only to be frustrated at the meager print book sales. While selling through the major chains, he sold less than 100 copies (counting the copies he gifted to his family). At my constant urgings he relented to allow his book be published in an eBook format – his concerns, as many artists/authors have… am I just giving my book away to the ether. We self published through Amazon & Barnes & Noble formats – due to the DRM restrictions (no format-shifting, etc.) and priced the first book at $.99. In print edition, my friend received about $23 of revenue over 2 years… which interestingly enough has just started to tick up since the release of the ebooks. In the first month, he sold over 100 ebook editions netting approximately $70. We priced book 2 at $1.99 and book 3 at $2.99. If your book is good enough to attract readers – they’ll want to read additional titles. If not, it might as well be free because no one’s going to buy it.

  19. Mark Lech Jaworski // February 14, 2011 at 6:59 pm //

    I purchased several books for my iPhone. Paid good money for them. Because of my eyesight (I am over 70) I can hardly read them for a period longer than 10 minutes at the time. Reading them on a train or a car (when somebody else is driving of course) is almost impossible.
    When I tried to read them on my Macintosh MacBook, they would not open and frustrated me with Adobe Digital Editions putting me in the loop of checking my AdobeID and password retrievals.
    I refuse to pay for them again and being a translator I have to have them in a digital format. Buying a paper copy, scanning and checking OCR errors turn me off completely.
    I would rather hold hand of my wife and do nothing else.

  20. This DRM is driving me crazy. I’m getting a Sony eReader in a couple of weeks for my birthday (hubby is being mean and has hidden it from me in the meantime) and I’ve been happily buying and downloading ebooks for the last couple of weeks. Only to find that most of them are now locked onto my laptop and I won’t be able to transfer them to the eReader unless I break the DRM.

    I don’t know if Australia has the same laws as the US, but no matter what I’m still quite unhappy about this. It’s as if I bought a paper book, but was only allowed to read it in my lounge room. I can’t take it with me to dancing, into the kitchen, in my handbag, no where but my lounge room. Anyone would laugh if those restrictions were put on normal books, but accept it as standard for ebooks.

  21. It’s amazing that this thread is still getting comments after 3 years!

    The two authors who posted above in favour of DRM have apparently not read Chris’s article. He explains very succinctly why DRM fails against piracy. He also outlines the numerous negative consequences of DRM for consumers and even for society as a whole.

    But if all these points are not sufficient to convince authors to oppose DRM, here’s a final one: There are many avid readers like me who ABSOLUTELY REFUSE to buy a DRM-encrypted book. So now you’re supporting a technology that (a) doesn’t stop or even slow piracy, (b) interferes with consumers’ rights, (c) runs the risk of monopolizing knowledge, and (d) scares away people who would ordinarily buy lots of books.

    It’s nonsense.

  22. tengo calibre, pero no se como convertir lod libros a formato PDF.
    ¿Podrían ayudarme?. Gracias

  23. Chylene Ramsey // June 20, 2015 at 4:27 pm //

    I am a writer also. I wonder that authors can happily give away tons of their books for free when KDP promotions do it, then balk stubbornly at the thought someone might skye them out of their 35% commission from ninety-nine cents. The solution is to grow up. Most authors these days recognize you aren’t going to get rich from thirty-five cents a book. You embed your effilitate links, add really good links to great infoproducts and other upsells. Then you pray your book is pirated like crazy because if its that good, you’ve done something right, and you are not paying a penny for marketing.

    Also, I detest DRM with a passion because I write a lot of non-fiction, and use e-books for research. You guessed it. I have to painstakingly write out any research I want to use from my ebooks, which means I go and search out pirated copies of certain texts I need. I almost cried when I had to shell out over thirty bucks for “Tragedy and Hope, “and screamed like a banshee when I saw it was three inches thick. I cursed the DRM demons to the ten nether worlds of hell as I slogged through that beast, let me tell you.

    It’s annoying, because who the hell does that information belong to? They didn’t pull it out of THEIR butts, nor did the authors. It came from the public domain for the most part, and should remain there, authors not withstanding. See above. G-R-O-W U-P.

    I yield the floor, and I’ll give you back your furniture, also.


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