50 shades of DRM


In presentations, published research and a range of consulting projects, I’ve consistently encouraged the use of EPUB as an open format for digital books. I believe in an open standard, so I have supported EPUB even though some high percentage (70%? 90%?) of the eBooks sold in the United States are read on a platform (Kindle) that uses a proprietary format.

In blog posts, I’ve also encouraged publishers to re-think their stance on the use of digital rights management (DRM) schemes. The current DRM patchwork is used largely to create platform lock-in for Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and others. As it limits utility, DRM also may have had the perverse effect of depressing price.

I have even been cautiously optimistic (with an underscore on “cautiously”) as several Macmillan imprints announced plans to stop using DRM on their titles.

This (brief) history gives me a perspective on the International Digital Publishers Forum (IDPF) proposed plan to develop (or lease) its own version of DRM, which it calls “Lightweight Content Protection”. The association published a position paper on May 18 and is soliciting comments through June 8.

Here's my comment: Don't do this. Here's why:

  • DRM does not stop piracy. Even if the technology used is advanced enough to discourage the casual reader, it takes only one sophisticated user to crack and post a file on a sharing web site.
  • While DRM discourages peer-to-peer file sharing (in the physical book world, we call that "lending"), I'd argue that it does the job so well it is suppressing price, something the IDPF could study before hitching its wagon to another eBook DRM.

Moreover, the use-case document, written by Bill Rosenblatt on behalf of IDPF, claims that a "key objective in providing 'some level of protection' is to take advantage of anticircumvention law, which is enacted in many countries including signatories to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)." It goes on to note:

"Anticircumvention law makes it a criminal offense to circumvent an 'effective technical protection measure.' The law does a poor job of defining this term.  While courts have refused to set a bar for 'effectiveness' such that any technology below the bar is not entitled to protection under the law, there is some evidence to suggest that a technology that is particularly ineffective could face such a challenge… If a technology is protected under anticircumvention law, then it’s illegal to distribute or use cracking tools for that technology.  To be very clear on this point: we expect that a lightweight DRM (in reality, any DRM) will be cracked, and we are relying on anticircumvention law for some level of crack protection."

Translated: We have to make the roadblocks noticeable enough to convince a court of law to sanction a reader for having broken them.

For the moment, put aside the practical question of who will fund this legal crusade. Just try to imagine media coverage of the first trial of someone busted for breaking book DRM.

Worse, the IDPF proposal isn't even an antidote to platform lock-in. The use-case overview later adds that:

"… there is no recommendation to remove or deprecate the extensibility in the EPUB format that enables a multiplicity of proprietary heavyweight DRM mechanisms to be provided by vendors. That 'ship has sailed' and there are applications where heavyweight DRM may be required."

Translated: Amazon, Apple and other vendors with proprietary DRM schemes get to keep them in place. The IDPF will add their own DRM, call it open and hope that publishers specify it.

I get the idea that reflowable EPUB files are a credible cross-platform alternative to PDF. I also get that some current (STM, corporate) PDF use-cases rely on various forms of DRM.

But it's not the lack of DRM that keeps document owners (some of whom are publishers) from using EPUB files. They could encrypt them now. It's a function of workflow and in some cases a misplaced desire to control the look and feel of the final result.

If the IDPF wants to do something to help grow the use of EPUB, it could start by studying the impact of DRM on competition and price. The results might give the organization better arguments for maintaining an open standard throughout the digital book industry.

But adding another flavor of DRM to an already crowded field? That ship has sailed. If you want to compete with Amazon, try being (and remaining) open.

A bit of disclosure: I've worked on a consulting assignment and co-presented on a panel with Bill Rosenblatt. While our views differ on some of these topics, he is well-known for his experience with rights technologies.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.