Evaluating the Future of eBook Content Protection

As criticism mounts over the use of digital rights management (DRM) for electronic books (ebooks), the digital book publishing industry must move swiftly to evaluate the future of ebook content protection or face a backlash from consumers.

DRM is software commonly used by manufacturers and publishers to restrict the unauthorised redistribution of digital material after sale. During the last decade, DRM protection for electronic publications was touted as a panacea to piracy. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there are serious shortcomings to this method of content protection.

One severe failing is that DRM-protected books cannot be freely distributed, device-shifted or shared (unlike a physical copy), even by the legitimate purchaser. The Guardian’s Cory Doctorow warns that this limitation of a user’s ability to consume a purchased title in a manner, at a time and on a device of their choosing has serious implications. In a world where the electronics industry relies on people buying upgraded, new devices every 12-24 months, it is predicted that a DRM-protected book purchased today will be unreadable for that person in five years. This is because consumers cannot transfer their ebook libraries from one device to another with DRM-protection, forcing them to re-purchase their books on any new e-reader. The fear is that many segments of the ebook market will be alienated because of these restraints, driving customers away or to turn to pirated ebooks instead.

Recognising these flaws of the DRM system, many organisations (and individuals) have begun to take a stance against its use on ebooks, including the publisher Tor and the author J.K. Rowling. Rowling’s books are now watermarked and permit up to eight downloads. Such revolutionary approaches have propelled DRM use back into the discussion forums. DRM protection was a hot topic at this year’s BookExpo America.

While DRM still has a place in ebook content protection, I believe that we need to move away from a general reliance on DRM protection on ebooks. It can no longer be viewed as a solution to the issues faced by rights holders in the digital sphere, a ‘one size fits all’ – we need to consider tailoring protection to ensure a happy equilibrium between rights holders’ interests and users if we are to combat piracy in any meaningful way. While Tor and J. K. Rowling’s actions may seem bold and even radical, they represent a considered understanding of the way readers wish to consume ebooks balanced by the need for an industry standard that ensures against the use of over-sharing. A system that eases restrictions on user behaviour, and allows titles to be viewed on multiple kinds of e-readers is not only sensible but necessary. A new industry standard should also include provisions to allow for the protection and ease of library e-lending. Of course, any relaxation of protection should be set against a backdrop of effective enforcement of regulations, which must be implemented to penalise unauthorized commercial distribution in order to protect rights holders’ interests.

The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) is currently developing a system that occupies ‘a middle ground between strong DRM and DRM-free’. If you are interested in vocalising your position on this issue, they are accepting comments regarding the new industry standard here. I strongly encourage you to lend your voice to this issue.