Digital Rights Management (DRM) is one of those terms that you either vaguely know or you spit out like a swear word at a seedy pub. Either way, you probably don’t like it or at least have a very negative feeling about it, even if you aren’t completely sure what it is.
On its own, DRM is not such a bad thing, really. It’s a market response to a need some publishers felt necessary to protect their information products. First designed for music and then movies, DRM also appeared and has largely dominated the mainstream electronic book industry as well.
Put very simply, DRM allows a publisher to “lock” the information stored electronically (be it music or a book) so that it cannot be copied without prior authorization. While this could be a good thing in some circumstances, it’s also got its drawbacks. For one, it makes it harder to share information between devices – so the music buyer who purchases a CD that uses DRM cannot “rip” that disc to make digital versions of the music for his or her iPod or home computer to use. Given the number of devices many consumers own that can play music, this is a big drawback and is the primary reason that most music publishers have dropped DRM as it has a direct, measurable effect on sales.
In electronic publishing, however, things are different. DRM is still prevalent amongst most of the major publishers and few users complain about it. Amazon.com, for example, lead the charge against DRM use in music, but has barely whispered a peep about it in books. Why? Because info-products like books are a very different animal from music.
For one, there aren’t as many devices to share books with – and most users who do have multiple devices capable of reading are not likely to share anyway. Surveys have shown that the average e-book owner has one dedicated e-reader and at least one other device capable of “reading” the book (usually a smart phone), but that user rarely reads anything but online content from his or her phone and instead reads nearly all purchased e-content on the dedicated device.
Put bluntly, if you don’t share, you probably don’t care. Even those who legally share content they own amongst multiple devices rarely make much noise about it. Frankly, if you do share on several devices, you probably have a way of either doing so easily (i.e. cloud-based service) or you are familiar with options that “strip” the DRM from your content so you can easily share it. Either way, you probably do not complain about DRM much.
One area where this is changing for e-books is with lending. While libraries have long had strong DRM (usually at publisher insistence), individual book readers often want to “share” their books with friends who may like them. Sort of the electronic version of loaning a book to a friend. Seeing this, most major reader platforms, specifically the Kindle and Nook, allow users to “lend” books to friends one at a time.
One thing is certain, however. As e-readers proliferate and more and more people own multiple devices capable of (and comfortable to) reading ebooks, the limitations of DRM will become a bigger issue. Until then, however, most of us barely notice it’s there.