Unintended Consequences: The Impact of DRM on the eBook Market

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Ryan Morison, Director of Erudition Digital, and member of Byte the Book, offers his thoughts on DRM and shares his alternative anti-piracy solution, Custos for eBooks.


As with any major innovation, the advent of the digital age has brought with it both opportunities and risks. For book publishers, the upsides were heavily offset by the risk of increased piracy on a global scale. As a result, most publishers resorted to using digital rights management (DRM) technologies to protect eBooks against piracy.

What is DRM?

The most widely used form of DRM used by publishers (often referred to as “hard DRM”) works by restricting eBook access to legitimate users. This usually involves use of a proprietary reading application and association of purchased eBooks with a user’s account with a retailer to prevent illicit copying and sharing.

Other forms of DRM such as “social DRM” and watermarking also exist but although they have less of an impact on the reader, they offer limited protection as they’re only effective once pirated eBooks are found and are not as widely used by themselves (in many cases they are a complement to hard DRM rather than an alternative). This article will focus primarily on the “hard” variant because of its pervasiveness.

What’s the problem?

For readers, hard DRM means being tied to the apps of the respective retailer for each of their purchases and in some instances, performing extra steps to register their purchases. Imagine only permitting readers to read print books from certain retailers in certain rooms of their houses – this is in principle what DRM does! Added to this, there’s also the risk of losing access to one’s purchases if the retailer or app vendor becomes defunct (as has happened before).  

What’s the impact? (Alternative: The medicine is worse than the disease?)

There is significant negative sentiment regarding DRM because it punishes honest users and can often be removed with freely available tools thus rendering it ineffective. The additional burden it imposes on readers creates a strong disincentive to purchase from more than one retailer. This entrenches the dominance of a few large retailers and stifles competition in the eBook retail market. It also makes it difficult for publishers to succeed with alternative routes to market such as direct sales – why buy direct from a publisher if it means installing and registering apps for each individual publisher?

Will publishers drop it?

In summary, DRM has significant drawbacks for publishers and their readers whilst only providing limited protection. The obvious question that follows is: why is it still being used? Although some are dropping it, it’s still largely the default means of protection for most publishers. This is because it’s a big step from hard DRM to none at all or to limited alternatives and publishers have an obligation (often contractual) to protect the work of their authors.

What is needed is a “middle road” alternative to hard DRM which addresses its downsides while providing better protection than alternatives. This is the objective of my company’s new anti-piracy solution, Custos for eBooks which provides a more efficient method of detecting infringements without impacting honest readers in any way. It is our hope that this will provide a viable alternative form of protection for publishers and in so doing contribute towards a more competitive eBook market.

For more information, contact Ryan Morison.

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