There’s nothing new about demands for the publishing industry to give up DRM on e-books—it’s been going on at least since the first e-books were sold with DRM on them. But it’s interesting to see the cry to ditch DRM show up in such mainstream publications as the Washington Post, which is carrying a column by Rob Pegoraro suggesting that the publishing industry should follow the music industry’s lead.

Since Apple successfully lobbied for permission to ditch DRM on its music, iTunes purchases can be played on a variety of hardware, including players with no connection to Apple. But e-books continue to be restricted to devices compatible with the e-book vendor, and also prevent such uses as copying, printing, or lending. (And they also prevent reselling, though I don’t think even without DRM it would be legally possible to resell an e-book.)

All those limits and lock-ins make an e-book with DRM a dubious deal. Why would I want to pay almost as much as for a paper book — in some cases more — and then have my purchase constrain its usefulness and therefore cut its value?

Pegoraro points to the example of O’Reilly as being a publisher that has done well by e-books without DRM. (Baen would be another such example, though he doesn’t mention them.) He also notes that, though e-book stores are starting to allow publishers to opt out of DRM, most publishers are not taking advantage of that even if their authors want them to—and the e-book stores usually don’t bother to make it clear when a book is DRM-free.

It’s unclear just how likely this is to happen, though. The music industry at least had the advantage only having one major digital outlet for music, unlike the e-book market where DRM is part of each e-book store’s competitive strategy for locking readers exclusively into one platform. And it’s a lot more time-consuming to scan paper books into e-books than it was to rip CDs, which means publishers don’t have the same pressure from another format that music did.

And, of course, publishers still seem to feel that DRM is at least somewhat effective. As long as they can still find some benefit in it, they’re unlikely to want to discard the practice.


  1. Hi. Interesting to see this happen. I’m not a fan of proprietary DRM. Sandboxes aren’t good for competition, and DRM isn’t good for readers either.

    There are parrallels between music and eBooks, however there are also significant differences in the markets and demographics.

    I say dump DRM, it’s not good for readers or writers, it’s just good for the big players trying to create eBook monopolies.

    Great to see main stream media making statements about this.

    All the best

    Adam Charles

  2. I recently learned about DRM when I purchased an ebook for $10 from Borders. I tried to put it in my Calibre library. When I couldn’t do it I found out why and learned of this ridiculous practice. Sad that Borders has to lose a customer after they’ve gone bankrupt, but it doesn’t matter because that experience made me resolve that I will never purchase from any big chain bookstore again. At least Powell’s books makes a point to let you know if the book is DRM free!

    Never thought that it would be more of a pain to download and use an ebook than an MP3. I hope some day it can be worked out that DRM will no longer be practiced. It is detrimental to readers, authors, publishers, book sellers, and anyone else involved in the bookselling process. Surely the powers that be know this, yet they continue to dig their own grave. Thank you for the great article.

  3. “Maybe most authors would choose DRM anyway. Dan Pacheco, chief executive of Boulder, Colo.-based BookBrewer, wrote that his Internet-publishing startup will provide an author’s work without DRM, “but no author has done that to date.””

    Huh? A lot of authors and small publishing houses offer DRM free ebooks!

    I do hope that more websites will show if a ebook is drm’d or not. Omni-lit, Fictionwise and Books on Board make is reasonably easy to find out if a ebook is drm’d

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