Friday, July 1, 2011

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Definition of Digital Rights Management (DRM): Technologies used by publishers and copyright holders to limit the use of digital content. Or: An effort to make digital files uncopyable that is as hopeless as "trying to make water not wet."

            On my NOOK, I have several e-books from At first, I thought Smashwords was being overly generous with writers’ works. Each time I paid for a book, I expected to be able to download only a single copy of it, in the format (ePub) that I need for my NOOK.
            But no: Having paid for Craig Lancaster’s pitch-perfect 600 Hours of Edward, and David Davis’s compulsively readable Travels With Grandpaw, I now seem to have the right to download unlimited copies of their books, in any format. I can view them online in HTML; I can download them as PDFs (touted by Smashwords as “good for home printing”); I can even download them as rich-text (RTF) and plain-text documents.
            In other words: I haven’t just bought books by these authors. I can now access their manuscripts.

Books vs. Manuscripts

            To me—and I daresay, to most writers—there’s a vast difference between our books and our manuscripts. We want our books distributed far and wide. We want our books in every library, public and private. We want our books on every e-reader, tablet computer, and smartphone.
            But our MANUSCRIPTS? Those are ours, to be kept safe and shared with only a trusted few. We read our mss. to our critique partners, a few pages at a time. We hand over the whole ms. to a handful of trusted readers. Eventually, when we’re confident that our work is ready for show, we may submit our mss. to agents and publishers.
            The idea of putting my WATERSPELL manuscripts online, as editable text files, sent the chill to my heart. But I’m beginning to thaw—even, perhaps, to warm to the concept. My mind is being changed by John Schember and Cory Doctorow.

“DRM—It’s All About Lock-In”

            At TeleRead, John Schember clearly and convincingly argues that Digital Rights Management—which supposedly stops people from pirating books—does absolutely nothing to prevent copyright infringement. In John’s view, DRM’s sole purpose is to keep readers “locked-in” to a single e-book vendor: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple. This lock-in binds readers to a particular vendor, and can cause them major problems. I quote:
            “There is no way to argue that DRM is a positive thing for readers …
            “The first issue is, it often locks the book to a particular device. If you buy a book from B&N for your Nook, then purchase a Kindle, you cannot read that book on the Kindle. You have to re-purchase the book for the Kindle.
            “The second issue relates to people who have been burned by DRM. Ebooks have been around for decades. There are cases where a store or DRM provider has gone out of business. Suddenly thousands of dollars (this really has happened) worth of ebooks cannot be read because the files cannot be authorized against the DRM server.
            “DRM restricts your ability to move content from one device to another … So if you get a new device (old one broke or it’s just time to upgrade) you cannot read the ebooks you currently own on the new device.
            “DRM gives readers a poor experience … Copyright infringers have a better experience than those who legally and honestly purchase an ebook. Obtaining an illegal copy means a reader doesn’t have to worry about [DRM] issues … Readers shouldn’t be punished by doing the right thing and actually buying an ebook!”

            Being not only a writer, but a longstanding member of the Tribe of Readers, I must agree that an unlocked e-book is a much handier thing than a book that is restricted to a single use on a single device. It’s nice to be able to open an e-book in HTML for online reading, if I want to quickly search for something while I’m at the computer and away from my NOOK. And it’s a warm feeling of security, knowing that all my unlocked e-books (those I didn’t buy through will move with me if I ever move to a different e-reader.
            Looking at this issue as a Reader, not as an Author, I must ask myself: Do I make any distinction between the books I download and read on my NOOK, and the text-file “manuscripts” of those books, which I can also access in their entirety? No, I don’t. Craig’s 600 Hours of Edward, and David’s Travels With Grandpaw, are THEIRS: their works, which I treat with the utmost respect. While it’s kinda cool to be able to thumb through their “manuscripts,” as text files, I don’t actually have much need to do so.

Are Authors at Risk?

            Will all readers, however, understand that they are NOT free to cut-and-paste or otherwise monkey around with the copyrighted properties that are published, without DRM restrictions, on sites such as Smashwords?
            This question arises from my naturally suspicious nature (I’m a Pisces), but also from a perfectly legitimate desire to protect my property: the writing that I have sweated blood over, that I’ve lost sleep over, that I’ve given my all to bring to fruition.
            Soothing my fears (and bringing me back to earth) is this observation from best-selling author Cory Doctorow:
            “For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”
             Cory argues that, even if readers download thousands of unauthorized e-books, the author is not greatly harmed:
            “[G]iving away books increases your notoriety a whole lot more than clutching them to your breast and damning the pirates.”
             Cory states unequivocally that, not only does he hate Digital Rights Management, it’s proven to be useless, as far as helping authors maintain control over their creations:
            “DRM doesn’t work. Every file ever released with DRM locks on it is currently available for free download on the Internet. You don’t need any special skills to break DRM these days: you just have to know how to search Google for the name of the work you’re seeking.
            “If you get a DRMed ebook, I urge you to break the locks off it and convert it to something sensible like a text file.”

The Choice: Take a Chance, or Remain Obscure

            Publishing one’s work has always entailed a certain amount of risk. I remember my student days, when I sat in the library with a stack of index cards, copying the best lines from a dozen or more books. (Steal from one, it’s plagiarism; steal from many, it’s research.)
            Then photocopiers were installed at the ends of the stacks, and I was only too happy to drop several dollars, a dime at a time, to painlessly capture the best lines from a dozen books.
            Then came the Internet (yes, girls and boys: I’m old enough to remember doing research pre-Internet) and the whole danged world learned to copy-and-paste. Among my responsibilities as an editor is to protect my clients from the wholesale copying off the Internet that is done by some of their freelance writers. One recent project, which was supposedly “written” by an expert with a Ph.D., was largely lifted from other people’s copyrighted websites and pasted verbatim into the Ph.D.’s “manuscript.”
            But I digress. My point:
            To publish one’s writing is to make it public. And once it’s public, people will use it, in whatever ways they care to use it.
            To end this rumination, I’ll again quote Cory Doctorow:
            “The thing to remember is that the very *worst* thing you can do to me as an artist is to not read my work — to let it languish in obscurity and disappear from posterity.
            “However an author earns her living from her words … she has as her first and hardest task to find her audience. As publisher Tim O’Reilly wrote in his seminal essay, Piracy is Progressive Taxation, ‘being well-enough known to be pirated [is] a crowning achievement.’”
             So I plan to take a chance and put my WATERSPELL trilogy out there as unlocked, DRM-less e-books, in hopes of finding my audience—and maybe, just maybe, getting famous enough to be pirated.

For Further Reading:

"The Problem Isn't Piracy. The Problem Is Obscurity." Cory Doctorow on Why Authors Should Give Their Work Away, Stop Sweating Copyright and Focus on Building a Community of Readers


  1. Hi Dude,

    Digital rights management restricts how a digital file can be used. When a digital file is DRM protected, it cannot be copied, printed or shared. Thank you...

    PDF File Protection

  2. Well, hi back, "Dude" ...

    (In Texas, girls are seldom called "Dude," but I'll let that pass.)

    Your statement that a DRM-protected file "cannot be copied, printed or shared" is simply not true. To repeat the quote from Cory Doctorow (above):

    "DRM doesn't work. Every file ever released with DRM locks on it is currently available for free download on the Internet. You don't need any special skills to break DRM these days: you just have to know how to search Google for the name of the work you're seeking."

    Since DRM doesn't work, why annoy potential readers by putting useless DRM locks on books? It does not profit a writer, to annoy her or his readers.

    Thanks for your comment--