The question of eBook file protection is an important one. Most authors and publishers want their files to be protected from illegal copying and piracy, but the standard approach of applying Digital Rights Management (DRM) to eBook files comes with its own set of difficulties, especially if you are planning to sell your own eBooks.
Let’s talk about the basics of DRM, then get into some more specific ideas on implementation.
DRM is essentially a lock that is placed on a digital file that keeps the file tied to the account of the person who purchased it. Different types of DRM are used to lock down movies, music, and eBooks, but they all do essentially the same thing. In the eBook market, DRM is either applied as a wrapper around the actual eBook file, or as part of the package of the eBook file itself. The DRM keeps someone from being able to open the file unless their device or software has the correct key, and most DRM also locks other features of the eBook even for valid owners, such as printing and copying content.
There are essentially three DRM systems currently in use by the major eBook retailers: Amazon’s, Apple’s, and Adobe’s.
Amazon applies its own DRM to Kindle eBooks, and they completely control the DRM system. This means that if you do decide to sell a Kindle eBook from your own website you will not be able to do so with DRM applied.
Apple applies its FairPlay DRM to files that are purchased from the iBookstore. As with Amazon’s DRM, FairPlay is not compatible with any other devices or applications, so the reader will be very locked down unless they take the DRM off the file.
Adobe‘s DRM system, called Adobe Digital Editions Protection Technology (ADEPT), uses a program called Adobe Content Server 4 (ACS4) to manage the DRM of eBook files from a server. The great thing about ADEPT is that it is currently in use by a variety of retailers, including B&N, Sony, Kobo, and Overdrive. It is also possible to license the ACS4 software and host your own DRM server for your own eBook store. However, there are some significant hurtles to overcome in that process, and it is best to have a company that specializes in using Adobe’s DRM help you with the setup and maintenance of that solution. Bluefire Productions is the best resource for those services in the industry, and we highly recommend you contact them if you want to set up your own DRM-protected eBook store. They also have a series of blog posts on the topic of Adobe’s DRM system, all of which are very informative and enlightening (see here, read from the bottom up).
Despite the value of the intended goal of DRM (protecting files from illegal use), it does not actually perform that task very well. One main issue is that all of the DRM systems that are in place right now have been “cracked” (broken), so someone who is committed to the idea of pirating eBook content will be able to easily pull the DRM off your eBook file.
Since the DRM can be removed, the main benefit that DRM gives is really to keep honest people honest. Some people who buy an eBook may not think that there is anything wrong with copying the file and giving it to a friend, so the DRM protection will keep that from happening. However, that same DRM also keeps the purchaser from being able to do valid things with their eBook files.
For example, imagine a reader who owned a Barnes & Noble Nook and bought a lot of eBooks from the Nook store over the course of a year or two. Once the device started to get old and needed an upgrade, the reader decided to purchase a Kindle as a replacement device. Once they get their new Kindle, they will find out that the DRM placed on files purchased for the Nook platform will keep them from being able to put those legitimately purchased eBooks on their new Kindle device. That kind of lock-in does not happen in the print world (my bookshelves don’t care where I bought a book), and it is very frustrating to eBook consumers.
There are other issues with the concept of DRM, and there are some very good points in favor of not using it on eBooks. Tim O’Reilly, founder of technology publisher O’Reilly Media, wrote a great article about this topic in 2002, laying out the issues with DRM better than we can here. Go read that article now, then come back here.
Another issue with DRM is that many of the discussions about it tend to be filled with fear and based on bad information. The effects that are commonly quoted as a reason to use DRM are just not provable. The U.S. Government Accountability Office completed a one-year research study [PDF] in 2010 that came to the conclusion that there is just not enough information to show that piracy is having a negative impact on the sale of digital goods. Tor Books UK, an imprint of Macmillan, went DRM-free for all of its titles in April 2012, and after a full year had seen no discernible increase in piracy.
While we here at eBook Architects do see a need for DRM protection on certain categories of eBooks, especially expensive eBooks like textbooks, we also think that the use of DRM is not a foolproof method of protecting an eBook from illegal copying.