The Perils of DRM-protected eBooks

January 4, 2008 at 6:42 am | Posted in eBook | 11 Comments

DRM-protected paperbackDRM stands for ‘Digital Rights Management’, a term describing the technology employed by publishers to prevent unauthorised duplication and distribution of copyrighted digital works (e.g. eBooks). Unfortunately in their attempts to protect their own rights, many rights of the consumer have been sacrificed along the way. This is particularly apparent when comparing a DRM-protected eBook with the traditional paperback. A paperback can be read anywhere, lent any number of times, given away and resold. A DRM-protected eBook gives you none of these rights. Heck, most don’t even let you print them.

If typical DRM restrictions were placed on a traditional paperback, then you would be forced to designate a chair for reading at purchase time. Your paperback would then be delivered to your home and chained to the said chair. Whenever you sat down to read your paperback, your mouth would be taped up so that you wouldn’t be tempted to read aloud to anyone in the room.

Perhaps the most onerous restriction in my mind is the practice of forcing you to choose a single eBook reader format at purchase time. This usually means that your eBook can only be viewed on a single mobile eBook reader or even worse, the PC that you purchased the eBook from. Amazon’s new Kindle is a classic example of this approach. On the one hand it’s a great step forward in terms of eBook reader hardware and useability. On the other, any eBook purchased for the Kindle will only ever be able to be viewed on the Kindle. What happens when a rival company develops a new reader that blows the Kindle away? You don’t want to have to re-purchase your entire library in a new format. Amazon has effectively locked you in.

Instead of reading eBooks, I prefer to use a text to speech application such as Text2Go to convert the text to an MP3 file so that I can listen to it on my iPod while commuting. However just about all DRM-protected eBooks have the ‘Read Aloud’ capability disabled. Why? Because it introduces a security hole. For someone like myself, this is merely frustrating, but what if you’re blind or visually impaired. Being able to purchase any book in digital form and have it read to you would be wonderful.

On the other side of the coin, authors and publishers need to be fairly compensated for their work. There could be nothing worse than spending months and months writing a novel, only to find it freely available all over the net, days after its release. One approach is to provide DRM-free eBooks and place full trust in the consumer. Consumers really appreciate this and I suspect that very few would ever dream of distributing any of the works that they’ve purchased. The most well-known example of this model is Baen Books, which I’ve mentioned before.

Another approach which I am also comfortable with is providing an encrypted file that contains the eBook and some information that identifies the purchaser. To view the eBook, the purchaser simply enters a password. As long as they are granted full rights to print, copy, and read aloud the text, this is not too onerous. The fact that the eBook contains information identifying the purchaser will be enough to discourage honest people from distributing it. One important caveat of this DRM approach is the eBook format used. It must be stored in an open format that can be viewed on any PC or mobile reader device. It must not use a proprietary format that locks you into a particular device or reader.

As a software publisher, this is the approach I use to protect Text2Go. When someone purchases Text2Go, they are given a license file that contains a key to unlock Text2Go and some details of the purchaser such as their name, address and email. This license file is not locked to a particular PC so Text2Go can be installed on any PC they use. To discourage the distribution of license files, the user’s personal details are encrypted in the file. This makes it pretty easy to see where the license file came from if it turns up on the internet. The other service that I provide is to re-issue a license file free of charge on request. This provides a safeguard in cases such as a hard drive failure or a stolen laptop.

It’s interesting to see the change in stance to DRM in the music industry, most notibly the introduction of DRM-free MP3 tracks at iTunes and the release of Radiohead’s new album ‘In Rainbows’ where the consumer could pay what they liked to download the entire album.

I hope the same trend will occur with eBooks. In the meantime, there are a lot of great sources of DRM-free eBooks.



  1. […] The Top 13 DRM-free eBook Sites January 4, 2008 at 6:44 am | In eBook | With the holidays upon us, many of us can think of nothing better than curling up with a good book. Therefore I  thought it a good time to compile a list of the top DRM-free eBook sites. If you want to know what DRM is and why it’s bad when it comes to eBooks, see my previous post on The Perils of DRM-protected eBooks. […]

    • A piece of eirudtion unlike any other!

  2. I am a teacher by profession and a strong advocate of ebooks over paperback. Recently I had an experience from an ebook site ( over DRM books that I can’t recover from. I changed my laptop, reinstall the readers and activated them(I use Microsoft, Mobi and Adobe just in case a needed book is available in one format only) and then none of the books on my hard-drive would open again. I contacted and requested another download or to re-activate the copies in my computer. They didn’t even bother to reply.

    I don’t live in the US so I believe I’ve lost my investments for sure. This has been my experience with DRM. I wish people could read your article and help speak for the rights of others. Thank you.

  3. Hello Gabriel,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I hear of this scenario time and time again. I took the liberty of contacting and pointed them at your comment, not expecting a reply.

    However, I’m pleased to say that I got the follow very prompt reply.

    Thank you for your message, I am not sure why he didnt get a reply if he email us. The ebooks should all be still in his account for which fresh downloads should work with the new reader installation. If he has any further problems however if he can email again and I will keep an eye out for any emails.

    Regards Support

    I strongly suggest you send a detailed description of your problem to the email address above. Let me know how you get on and if you don’t have any satisfaction, I’ll follow it up again. Good luck!

  4. M. Gladding, sir
    I’m pleased to note that I have been able to restore my ebooks and they have opened. I deleted the previous copies and downloaded them again from my ebookshelf. Thanks for the role you played. I hope that eventually a more sensible alternative to DRM will be found for digital books. The ebook is one of the best things that ever happened to computers, in my opinion.

  5. […] The Perils of DRM Protected Ebooks […]

  6. […] The Perils of DRM Protected Ebooks […]

  7. I have purchased an ebook but it will allow me only to read on E Reader and Stanza ok when i entered my credit card
    but my favorite app to read on is Bookshelf which cost $10 on itunes by far the best ebook reader with automatic scroll so when i am on the treadmill it’s great .
    How can i get that book in my Bookshelf ?

  8. I have several novels and computer eBooks that are “protected.” It has been so frustrating because my Palm Treo 755p is chock full of programs that were hard to juggle. For example, my Slovo Ed Unabridged Dictionary and English-Spanish Dictionaries were a a real mind bender to distribute amongst internal memory and SD card. I’ve also recovered from several crashes and operating system reinstalls. Every time something like this happens I loose some of my most important eBook licenses and registrations. I have frequently exhausted my registration limit and have to resort to getting in touch with the publisher for a little understanding and reinstatement. I hate the hassle. It’s been months since I’ve been able to read my a couple of my computer eBooks upon which my livelihood depends.

  9. Just wait till google comes out with ebooks that you can read on your browser on any device

  10. While I in general love what the “new” technology can do, for the time being i am switching back to paperbacks. The frustration over e-book’s rights limitations with i-tunes is flabbergasting. It reminds one of the computer software limitations of 30 years ago.
    For instance I have a cookbook on my i-phone but can’t print a page to take to the kitchen with me. The phone screen is too small to be practical, the glare makes it impossible.
    Thus I developed a hatred for DRM and it’s boiling.

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