When Holtzbrinck, parent company of Macmillan, announced it was dropping restrictive DRM from its books on the German trade publication market, David Rothman wrote, “Let’s hope that the German-owned Bertelsmann, a major owner of Penguin Random House, will wise up.”

Those hopes have now been fulfilled. In this German article from Buchreport, Random House has now announced it will drop restrictive “hard DRM” in the German trade publishing market. In the machine-translated version:

"Abandoning harsh DRM facilitates readers and distributors dealing with e-book files, increases customer satisfaction and reduces complexity. At the same time traders and platforms can be supplied, which offer no hard DRM. With the conversion to soft DRM we join also an ever-widening industry consensus," explains CEO Frank Sambeth the motives of management.

Like fellow German publishers Bonnier and Holtzbrinck, Random House will be switching to “soft DRM”—digital watermarking that will serve to identify the purchaser of any work that ends up on peer-to-peer. Another German article from Lesen.net (translation here) notes Random House takes a very firm stance against piracy. It also suggests the move toward “soft” DRM could put pressure on Amazon since readers will be able to convert non-Amazon books to Kindle. However, average users are less concerned about Amazon’s DRM as long as they can read their Kindle titles on other platforms using Kindle apps.

This move means that both the German conglomerates that own major American publishers are now DRM-free in their native country. Will this decision trickle down to the American market? It’s by no means guaranteed. The German e-book market and the US e-book market are very different, with price controls and other factors present in Europe that have no equivalent in the US.

Still, Macmillan’s Tor imprint has repeatedly reported smashing success with its removal of DRM in the US and UK markets, and that has to count for something. We can only hope.

Publisher’s note: One question will be the extent to which stores and distributors cling to traditional DRM, even if Random itself is not using it. Will they still add their toxins, including proprietary ones? Amazon said in the past that it would respect publishers’ wishes not to use DRM. The small press publishing my novel is adamantly anti-DRM, and Amazon obliged. Will it accommodate Random House as well? I suspect so. But let’s see what happens. – D.R.


  1. @Nate: From Wikipedia: “Watermarks are not complete DRM mechanisms in their own right, but are used as part of a system for copyright enforcement, such as helping provide prosecution evidence for purely legal avenues of rights management, rather than direct technological restriction. Some programs used to edit video and/or audio may distort, delete, or otherwise interfere with watermarks. Signal/modulator-carrier chromatography may also separate watermarks from original audio or detect them as glitches. Additionally, comparison of two separately obtained copies of audio using simple, home-grown algorithms can often reveal watermarks. New methods of detection are currently under investigation by both industry and non-industry researchers.”

    Ok, OK, opinions may differ. But as I see it, if we really want to be precise, then we should not include watermarking as DRM. Perhaps, of course, we could call it a form of “Social DRM.” But plain old DRM? No.

    What really will be interesting, beyond the U.S. question, is whether PRH will encourage bookstores not to add traditional DRM. Let’s hope so! That would be a win-win for both consumers and the industry.

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