Here’s an interesting post from the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), the people responsible for the EPUB format. Bill Rosenblatt of GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies lays out a proposal for a “lightweight DRM” standard for EPUB that would be more permissive than some of the “heavyweight” DRM systems currently in use. The idea is to prevent “oversharing” such as peer-to-peer while allowing users to make most of the sorts of uses they take for granted with physical books.

As Rosenblatt explains, the idea is not to be uncrackable—he specifically admits that “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.” The idea is to be just tough enough to be considered an “effective technical protection measure” that qualifies for protection under such laws, while still allowing readers to make freer use of the digital products they purchase. The IPDF is taking comments on the proposal through June 8th.

The paidContent article where I found it lists some specific bullet points of the idea, such as watermarking and modification limits, but there’s really not too much point in going into those here. It’s sufficient for my purposes to say that the restrictiveness is somewhere between what most e-book stores use now and none at all. Rosenblatt points to iTunes’s FairPlay DRM as an example of the sort of doesn’t-get-in-your-way user experience he’s going for. And we’ve already had other DRMs, such as eReader’s, that share the element Rosenblatt suggests of a password (such as your credit card number) that you wouldn’t want to share widely.

The problem I see with this idea is, who exactly is going to use it? Rosenblatt points to vendor lock-in as one of the problems with current DRM implementations, but from the point of view of the vendors (who are the ones who actually decide what DRM they use) that’s a feature—exactly the opposite of a problem. And up to now, copyright holders have seen restrictiveness of DRM as a feature as well. Who’s going to make them move to something lighter?

For that matter, when considering those publishers who are inclined to move to something lighter, this could actually be counterproductive for those of us who don’t like DRM at all. The Harry Potter series, some of the most popular children’s books of the last twenty years, are being sold DRM-free. Tor has also announced it is going DRM-free, Other publishers may soon follow. I’d a lot rather have that than some halfway point that’s still needlessly restrictive.

And the reliance on anti-circumvention laws for protection is something that’s always puzzled me. I mean, sure, they’ll criminalize making the tools to break it—but that’s never stopped anyone, especially if that anyone lives in a country where DRM-cracking isn’t illegal to begin with. There are plenty of tools for breaking most kinds of DRM already out there.

And that being the case, if I were the sort of person who was inclined to use a DRM-cracker to break e-book DRM, I could crack all the e-books I wanted to in the privacy of my own home without anyone ever knowing, unless I were foolish enough to brag on the Internet about how I broke the DRM. (Which is exactly why, if I ever theoretically did break e-book DRM, I would never admit to it in public!) Who exactly are those laws protecting?

We don’t need a “kinder, gentler DRM”. It would only serve as a crutch to let media companies cling longer to the illusion that DRM is helpful. We can already crack DRM on e-books—or bypass it by scanning paper books in. DRM is no barrier to the tech-savvy, and only hinders the non tech-savvy. It’s only a needless frustration. Admit it and move on.


  1. Chris, you make good points that raise some of the key questions. Adoption of any standard approach is certainly a big issue.

    But you only touched on enabling publisher direct distribution. While Pottermore went DRM-free that was a special case (among other reasons, Harry Potter books had been widely pirated due to unavailability as legit eBooks, so they had to compete with pirate eBooks to a greater extent than most). It’s not at all clear that a plurality much less majority of publishers are really ready to do likewise. But with a layer of encryption that makes watermarks more persistent (practically and legally) and preserve content integrity then it suddenly is much more appealing to mainstream publishers, potentially making much more content available directly and w/out “heavy” DRM used by vendors. Even O’Reilly’s Safari Books Online (not a friend of DRM) uses PDF encryption on the watermarked PDFs they let subscribers download.

    The other issue you didn’t mention is library lending. No one seems ready to let libraries loan e-Books that never expire. Again even O’Reilly supports DRM with libraries.

  2. It’s been pointed out many times here that readers of popular fiction are largely unaware of DRM and are, therefore, quite content not to own the eBooks they “buy” with all of the implications of that fact (no re-sale, lending, etc). Ditto for vendor lock-in – they are content with that as well, perhaps even proud and defensive of their jailer.

    The few people who are concerned with the antics of the culture barons are viewed as party poopers.

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