image OverDrive rudely reminded us of the perils of DRM when it decided to stop providing Mobipocket books to Fictionwise. An old lesson hit many e-book-lovers. You can’t really own a DRMed book. You’re at the mercy of profit-driven business people—and not just at the store that sold you the title.

Luckily Fictionwise is negotiating with publishers to make all the yanked-out titles available in eReader, its own format. But not every store is as scrupulous on format matters as Fictionwise has tried to be.

How to end such nightmares in the future, so the public can correctly perceive e-books as ownable? The best single way to to encourage use of the standard ePub format from the International Digital Publishing Forum and discourage the use of DRM, a proven sales toxin in so many cases.

ePub and DRM: Better decoupling needed

image In that regard, the IDPF urgently needs to do a better job of decoupling ePub from DRM. It should come up with a logo for nonDRMed ePub. Such an effort would assure buyers that an e-book file was truly in line with standards and thus would be permanently ownable. One of the major problems with DRM is that it’s proprietary and weakens the laudable standardization efforts that the IDPF has promoted. DRM keeps the Tower of eBabel propped up despite the growth of ePub.

Simply put, let’s make e-books as easy to buy as audio CDs. In fact, the tagline of the logo in retail contexts could be, “Ownable ePub.” Talk about a way to give publishers a bit more price leverage, while treating the consumer fairly! If you can’t truly own a book, it is worth less. On top of that, DRM increases publishers’ expenses and detracts from the value of literature. Books, after all, are supposed to be a durable medium, with the true masterpieces read for centuries. DRM is anti-permanence.

IDPF fumbles

So far, however, despite repeated suggestions from me, the IDPF has refused to do the logo and thus decouple ePub and DRM to my satisfaction. Perhaps certain people in the organization want to pair ePub with DRM, regardless of protests to the contrary. The IDPF’s slowness in coming up with the logo does not make the group look good. Other e-book formats have official logos to guide consumers. But ePub, to my knowledge, does not. And if somehow it does, it’s obviously not very well promoted. The IDPF has done many good things, but it’s bungled, bungled, bungled the logo issue.

The IDPF’s unspoken message about the logo is apparently: “You’re just gonna wait until we have a DRM standard. NonDRMed books just don’t count for us.” Could it be any coincidence that the president of the IPDF is the founder of OverDrive, a company heavily into DRM–yes, the same one that left Fictionwise stranded?

DRM standard imperiled by tech changes

As technical people can tell you, a DRM standard could be rather problematic because of changing technology and for other reasons. To encourage the growth of ePub and in fact the e-book industry as a whole, the IDPF should do a standards-related logo NOW covering nonDRMed ePub, so customers can buy with confidence.

If somehow the IDPF comes up with a DRM standard, a second logo can be created. But for now, the IDPF in effect is accidentally dissing small publishers like mine—which correctly think of DRM as a sales obstacle.

Social DRM: A better approach

For companies terribly worried about piracy, I would recommend social DRM. None other than Adobe’s Bill McCoy has blogged about SDRM in a positive way (while still saying Adobe should also do DRM). Follow these links for more on social DRM.

With social DRM–putting names or other identifying information in books, to discourage illegal sharing–the same files could still be readable on a number of systems. Social DRM is far from perfect. But in terms of book sales, it would be preferable to the current mess.

Yes, I’m all for companies making money—both the content variety and the tech ones (OverDrive included). In fact, that’s why I’m so anti-DRM. I do my best to avoid DRMed e-books, and I suspect that a growing number of book-buyers will feel the same, including Kindle owners who decide to move up to better devices in the future.

A second logo if need be

If need be, a second logo that could include a DRM standard, though I’d vastly prefer that the IDPF stop catering to DRM advocates at the expense of us skeptics and society at large.

Granted, library and school apps are used as an argument used by many DRM defenders. But I’m convinced that in the long run, new business models would be better than continued reliance on DRM.

In the future the cloud approach could open up new opportunities for schools and libraries, as far as their need to distinguish loaned books from the ownable variety that retailers supposedly “sell.” Libraries could “loan” access to the books, with timed access at password-protected, patron specific URLs. Hardly full “protection.” But then the existing DRM isn’t, either.

Gentle DRM—but still not as good as none

Meanwhile my sympathy to Fictionwise, which offer DRM for publishers insisting on it, but which would rather not bother readers with the technology. Of all the DRM systems, FW’s “protection” in eReader is probably the among the most gentle, with no limits on the number of devices used to read a specific title.

But that still doesn’t address other major technical and social issues associated with a DRM standard—not just changing tech but also hassles such as the inherently “closed” nature of DRM, or the fact that pirates will scan best-sellers and release unencumbered, truly ownable copies.

What a wonderful system we have! You can’t own most best-sellers for real unless you crack the DRM or download the books from pirates.

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  1. David, as the CEO of Simplicissimus Book Farm (a digital publishing firm based in Italy) I’m a member of IDPF: as I fully agree with you, please consider I would be happy to join your efforts and be of help, just let me know what to do etc…

  2. One way forward would be to revert to physical media, the same chip that permits re-socket of phone numbers to a new phone device. Then there would only be the constraint of media deterioration. My 12″ DEC floppies are still in great shape.

  3. Although I don’t buy from Fictionwise (I find their pricing on the high side. For example, I bought 3 books by Fiona McIntosh this morning directly from HarperCollins which was cheaper than Fictionwise), I do appluad FW’s efforts.

    The only caution I would give, David, is that FW’s efforts are good only so long as FW remains in business, unless the books are made available in a “universal” non-DRMed format, such as DRM-free ePub.

  4. A new logo would be great, but perhaps it should not be used for DRM-free e-books. Instead the new logo could be placed on all e-books with DRM. Here are some possibilities. Manacles would represent the entrapment of the user in a proprietary system. A bear trap with sharply pointed teeth would symbolize the pain felt when trying to move an e-book to a new device. A ticking time bomb would signify that the e-book will become inaccessible and worthless if the publisher fails or simply changes its policy on a whim.

    The DRM logo should also incorporate a warning similar to the U.S. Surgeon General’s admonition: “The aggravation you experience using this DRM encrusted object will shorten your life as much as a package of cigarettes.”

    More seriously, any product with DRM should provide full notification and disclosure to the customer of its myriad drawbacks in advance of any sale.

  5. I agree about Social DRM, David. It’s been bandied around for years, and many (including me) reckon it’s never been given a proper run.

    One suggestion I remember reading a few years ago included embedding the ebook-buyer’s credit-card number in the ebook file, which would create a clear incentive to not pass on the file. The obvious dangers of such a system mean it never caught on.

    Slashdot has a discussion going about social DRM in iTunes’ new ‘DRM-free’ regime: “iTunes DRM-Free Files Contain Personal Info”, at

    It will be very interesting to see how this plays out at iTunes.

  6. I like the idea of branding for DRM-free, openly specified, indefinitely keepable formats.

    Or, more concisely, one could call them something like “open reader” formats.

    There wouldn’t just happen to be a brand and logo along those lines sitting idle at the moment, would there? :-) Would the owner of said brand be interested in using it for that purpose?

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