OverDrive to offer DRM-free audiobooks via Borders: Time to try unshackled e-books, too?

image Kudos to OverDrive for offering DRM-free audiobooks in MP3 through its partnership with Borders. Sales start in May.

Let's hope that experimentation with DRMless e-books follows---and not just at Borders. OverDrive is a leading provider of library e-books, and I hope it will look beyond retailers, with adjustments in library business models if need be.

DRM vs. none

Might some library e-books be available for "permanent" checkout and use social DRM and digital watermarks to discourage posting to P2P networks? DRM makes library e-books a nightmare for many readers to enjoy, especially if they use imagemore than one device. The technology also means that taxpayers must spend more money---directly or indirectly---on tech support.

Backing off on DRM would help address the issues that the Free Software Foundation is having with the Boston Library---see Defective by Design's writeup. It would also whet people's appetite for nonDRMed books from standard retail outlets, since libraries can't buy everything.

Ahead is the OverDrive news release. Meanwhile major thanks to Ed Klopek for spotting it.

OverDrive to Distribute MP3 Audiobooks to Booksellers and Libraries

Download audiobooks compatible with iPod, Zune, and thousands of MP3 players

Cleveland, OH) – March 19, 2008 – OverDrive® (, the leading digital book distributor to online retailers, libraries, and schools, announced today that it will expand its catalog of download audiobooks to include titles in MP3 format without DRM. Borders, Inc. (NYSE: BGP) will be the first bookseller to offer OverDrive MP3 Audiobooks without DRM at and at Digital Centers inside select Borders store locations. OverDrive MP3 Audiobooks will be compatible with nearly every MP3 player and mobile phone on the market including iPod, Zune, iPhone, and Creative Labs products.

OverDrive MP3 Audiobooks will go on sale in May at with thousands of best-selling titles from Random House Audio, Blackstone Audiobooks, Hachette Book Group, Books In Motion, plus dozens of other publishers. The new catalog of MP3 titles for retail will be added to OverDrive’s catalog of approximately 20,000 DRM-protected digital audiobooks and over 100,000 eBooks in popular formats.

“OverDrive MP3 Audiobooks will dramatically increase the market for download spoken word titles through our global retail network,” said Erica Lazzaro, OverDrive Senior Licensing Counsel. “Publishers, authors, and customers will benefit from MP3 compatibility of audiobooks with millions of mobile phones and MP3 players including the iPod.”

OverDrive MP3 Audiobooks are engineered for ease-of-use, convenient navigation, and simple transfer to portable players. Long unabridged audiobooks are divided into parts for easy access by both dial-up and broadband users, simple point-and-click transfer to portable players, and easy burning to CD. OverDrive Media Console, a free software program installed on more than 2 million PCs, is specifically designed for audiobooks and includes advanced listening features such as bookmarking and play speed control. OverDrive also plans to release OverDrive Media Console for Mac in conjunction with the launch of OverDrive MP3 Audiobooks.

Following the retail launch in May, a limited selection of OverDrive MP3 Audiobooks will be added to OverDrive’s extensive library network. OverDrive MP3 Audiobooks for library lending will include thousands of award-winning titles from Blackstone Audio, Books In Motion, CSA Word, and Audio Evolution, among others.

About OverDrive, Inc.

OverDrive is a leading full-service digital distributor and supplier of eBooks, audio books, music, and video. We deliver secure management, DRM protection, and download fulfillment services for hundreds of publishers and institutions (rights holders) and thousands of libraries, schools, retailers, and aggregators serving millions of end users. Founded in 1986, OverDrive is based in Cleveland, OH.

About David Rothman (6820 Articles)
David Rothman is the founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of He is also author of The Solomon Scandals novel and six tech-related books on topics ranging from the Internet to laptops. Passionate on digital divide issues, he is now pushing for the creation of a national digital library endowment.

10 Comments on OverDrive to offer DRM-free audiobooks via Borders: Time to try unshackled e-books, too?

  1. Every time a DRM is killed, a puppy is born with a butterfly on its nose…

  2. For the lending case, I don’t see any form of watermarking as a viable alternative to the more traditional DRM. Without a way to ensure that the book is unreadable (ie it expires) after the lending period, I can’t see publishers/authors (except for those that ‘free’ their content) being comfortable with allowing libraries to lend out material – effectively becoming a non time limited free competitor.

  3. FYI…If you purchase an audiobook from Overdrive and burn it to a CD, you can upload it to a different computer without the DRM. I was even able to get the audiobook on my ipod, which is on Overdrive’s list of unsupported devices.

  4. Hi, Jim. Many thanks for your reply. Keep in mind that in advocating social DRM for libraries, I alluded to “permanent checkouts.” Yes, people could keep the books forever, just so they didn’t spread them around outside fair use.

    As for social DRM itself, remember the idea reached me from none other than Adobe’s Bill McCoy. I think it would be wonderful if Adobe and other IDPF members participated in experiments—both library- and retail-related—with the SDRM approach.

    Publishers would receive higher compensation from libraries than for books that expired. No free lunch expected. Patrons would have yearly or month quotas, which they could pay extra to raise.

    Or—gasp—there could also be ad-supported biz models, like Wowio’s, in appropriate situations. The ads could be spread around, Google-fashion, and librarians could screen out ads disguised as books.

    I’d rather see books without ads, and I know that advertising is not a panacea; just one possibility. It would also help to have a TeleRead-style plan to provide for mass financing of library e-books, while taking care to keep the private sector alive, given the freedom of expression issues involved.

    Bottom line: I’m well aware of all the issues SDRM raises, and believe there are solutions if people will look beyond tech alone and think more about business models.


  5. (First mea culpa for not reading your article more carefully, mostly I was responding to the DbD article).

    The current balance between libraries and publishers has worked because of the scarcity of P. Without artificially introducing this scarcity into E with DRM ( by forcing an expiration), a new model would have to be developed. Or to put it another way: permanents checkouts are just a variant on how to purchase the content, which if adopted would essentially transform libraries into non-profit bookstores. While some publishers might be interested in giving advantageous terms to non-profits, this is not something that I would like to see made compulsory on all publishers.

  6. Hi, Jim. Given how tough publishers have it now, I think that it might be possible to come up with alternatives. Again, however, let me emphasize the need to protect the private sector. We need a variety of approaches since different ones favor different kinds of books. Thanks. David

  7. Garson O'Toole // March 20, 2008 at 5:00 pm //

    When e-books and audiobooks from libraries are encumbered with DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) the perverse goal is to enforce artificial scarcity as Jim Lester notes insightfully. However, it is much easier to give a library patron an unencumbered DRM-free item that remains accessible and usable without a time restriction. Abstruse, inflexible and buggy electronic mechanisms that implement expiration dates cause untold aggravation.

    Often the items from libraries can only be used on specialized platforms. For example, audiobooks from NetLibrary and OverDrive do not work with the most popular class of audio players, iPods. Sadly the quixotic pursuit of artificial scarcity impoverishes everyone. I do believe that artists should be compensated, but the often retrograde strategies of payment used in previous centuries are not by themselves adequate to the requirements of the twenty-first. David Rothman’s comments about permanent checkout are worth thinking about.

  8. David,
    Yes there should be a variety of approaches, and I’m glad to see both Amazon, Baen and Wowio, all comfortably existing in the space. However since most of the approaches involve either new business models, or tweaks/extensions to existing ones, perhaps libraries are not the best places to be conducting these experiments.

    For publishers that don’t wish to provide their content under a ‘free’ license, the alternative for libraries is not E content free of DRM, but no E content at all. Publishers really don’t want to have to compete with free, and forcing them to do so (ie compulsory licensing of DRM free E content to libraries) would be wrong. The best way to fight DRM is not through legislation but through your pocketbook. People are starting to notice, from the record industry to the game industry (Ars had a good write up on people waking up in the game industry: )

  9. Jim: As usual thanks. Actually I think libraries will be in trouble if they don’t don’t experiment with new models.

    This experimentation should be done with at least several things in mind–all important:

    1. User convenience. DRM is anti-convenience. On my XO, my main e-book reader in effect, I can’t read either Adobe or Mobi books from the public library. The DRM is in the villain, of course.

    2. Respect for the rights of content creators. When I propose permanent checkouts, for example, I’m fully aware of the need for compensation to be adjusted.

    3. We need to think about digital divide issues. If there is a fee for expanding the number of permanent checkouts allowed, perhaps it could be waived for people making less than X dollars a year.

    What conditions would you or others like to add to the list?


  10. David, as always a good conversation…

    To me, Libraries are places where content may be read or borrowed. Permanent checkout isn’t really “borrowed”, but is instead “give”. This would put the libraries squarely into wide scale content distribution, and place them into direct competition with other distributors (book stores/publishers/content creators themselves). To experiment with this model in libraries while still handling your points 2 and 3 for anything other than ‘free’ content (ie Project Gutenberg) or from the more adventurous (forward thinking?) publishers will require legislation, and legislation is just not someplace I want to see experimentation done.

    Instead of trying to extend the “borrowed” part of Libraries into E (without DRM), another possibility is to try to extend “read” instead. I could see potentially something like O’Reilly’s Safari model of allowing users to have online access to limited number of books at a time, and then couple that with a full text index engine to replace the current card catalogs for finding the content that you actually want to find. This would fit in nicely with expanding at least the research use of libraries while still respecting the copyrights of the content owners.

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