Have you ever purchased an e-book, but could only use it on a single device or app? That’s because digital rights management (DRM) is preventing you from moving it to other devices. By definition, DRM is any technology that sellers build into an electronic product or service to limit the range of the file’s uses after purchase. DRM is designed to prevent customers from using digital technology beyond what a bookseller or mobile device manufacturer intended.
Why is DRM used?
Considering the amount of time and money authors and publishers invest in a new book, it’s no surprise that they would want to protect their work from piracy. DRM systems can place a wide range of restrictions on content purchased legally, such as blocking the conversion of e-books into different formats and imposing limitations on e-book sharing with multiple users and different devices.
How does DRM affect customer experience?
Since the arrival of e-books, almost all publishers require e-book sellers to apply DRM to every e-book sold. This means that each e-book you download has some sort of limitation on how you read it. DRM prevents copying, printing and sharing by tying each e-book file sold to a specific user’s account and limiting the devices that support it.
While DRM offers protection for the publisher, it has its drawbacks for the customer. DRM can keep consumers from moving books from device to device. DRM may also keep a customer from buying an e-book at one store and downloading it on another store’s proprietary reader or app. A great example of this situation is how e-books bought from Amazon cannot be downloaded on Barnes and Noble’s Nook reader and confirms why DRM is an imperfect solution to protecting e-books and other files.
What happens when publishers remove DRM?
Remember when people downloaded mp3s illegally on Napster? In the early days of digital music, downloading mp3s illegally was often the only viable solution to accessing music across various devices because of strict DRM restrictions and regulations. When Apple, one of the first major players in the market, used DRM with its iTunes files, a frenzy of negative feedback from its customers resulted. In response, Apple removed DRM in 2009 and reverted to an open file approach, which meant legitimate users could not only purchase music from Apple, but also play that music on multiple devices. Since then, iTunes has become the largest and most profitable music store in the world.
In a recent study within the music industry via ARS Technica, researchers found that removing the DRM restrictions on downloads not only enabled search and sharing among consumers, it also led to increased sales of more obscure music customers might have otherwise bypassed. With the prominence of DRM-free music, incentives for “pirates” to steal music are becoming a thing of the past.
Today, the publishing industry is facing the same issues with e-books as the music industry did with music downloads. With increasing demand for mobile and e-book content, major publishers have come to depend on e-books as an important stream of revenue, contributing significantly to their bottom line. To calm the fear of potential rampant piracy, publishers of e-books are opting for the more conservative DRM approach to protect their investments and the work of writers, but that comes with some risk to customer satisfaction.
Striking a balance between keeping customers happy and protecting e-books
Booksellers currently face the challenge of keeping the content protected, while also keeping customers happy. While some willingly adhere to a strict DRM approach, other booksellers reject the notion that limiting titles is the best solution to e-book piracy. The restrictive environment that DRM creates not only limits cross-compatibility, it also tends to alienate end-users who, out of frustration, search for alternatives, such as illegal “stripping.” Stripping is an often crude way to remove DRM limitations on a protected file. This practice is illegal, although fairly easy to accomplish. The simplicity of stripping reduces DRM as a minor deterrent.
Trying to lock customers into a single device or punishing them for the actions of others deprives customers of the flexibility they desire. Treating customers with respect and catering to their needs means working to create compatibility between platforms and expanding options to all e-readers.
Are there other options to DRM?
Luckily, DRM is not the only solution to e-book theft. For example, distributors can add a digital watermark containing the customer’s name, email address and other information to identify the purchaser. This would embed personal and IP location information into the e-book at the time of purchase, tying that copy back to its owner. Because there isn’t a traditional DRM security layer on the file, customers would be able to read these watermarked e-books across multiple platforms, removing the limitations of reading e-books on different devices. Customers would also have the ability to download e-books from the bookseller of their choice, minimizing Amazon’s stronghold over the market. Customers could buy e-books from Barnes and Noble, or smaller bookstores, and easily add them to their Kindle’s library.
New trends in streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora are changing the way users access music and how musicians are compensated. These services are removing the risk of illegal downloads for music. Eventually, similar approaches will make their way to e-publishing. Once that happens, the need for illegal downloads will virtually disappear.
In order to satisfy the needs of the publishers and the consumers, today’s e-book industry leaders should be searching for new alternatives like watermarking. In addition, publishers need to consider the possibility that the proprietary nature of DRM may be the problem rather than the solution, causing more harm than good. One of the best ways to avoid boxing customers into a maze of restrictions is to provide several alternatives that recognize the reality of digital life. Once booksellers and publishers decide to stop policing infringement, they’ll have more time, energy and creativity to build better, more innovative service to customers and develop a positively memorable experience for paying customers.
Tony DiCostanzo is the president and founder of BookPal, an e-commerce company that that sells books to corporations, school districts, non-profits and government agencies. DiCostanzo has led BookPal’s growth from a startup to a three-time Inc. 500|5000 honoree and was recognized by OC Metro magazine as one of Orange County’s “Top 40 Under 40.”