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While flying home from Bologna for our TOC event I couldn’t help but think about some of the similarities between digital rights management (DRM) and airport security.  Here are a few common points that come to mind:

False sense of security — Seriously, does anyone today still believe any DRM system is hackerproof?  Heck, even books that have never been legally distributed in any e-format are out there as illegal downloads.  Just Bing the phrase “harry potter ebook downloads” and you’ll see what I mean.  Scanners are everywhere, so if physical books can be illegally shared what makes you think a DRM’d title will never appear in the wild?  On the airline side, I feel like we’re always focusing on the last attack (e.g., underwear bomber, shoe bomber, etc.) and not focusing instead on what the next idiot will try.

Treats everyone like a criminal — It’s hard not feeling like a convict when you’re going through airport security or coming back through immigration/customs.  The assumption is you’re guilty till proven innocent by way of xray machines, full-body scans and patdowns.  On the book side, the fact that I can’t treat my ebook purchase like I can my print book ones (e.g., can’t be resold or lent to a friend indefinitely) makes me feel like the retailer and publisher simply don’t trust me.

Highly inefficient — DRM is such an enormous waste of time.  The only players coming out ahead are the DRM technology providers!  I now have two Kindles and an iPad.  In order to move content from one to the other I have to go through Amazon so they can make sure I’m not breaking the rules.  What if I don’t have a web connection at that moment?  I’m stuck and can’t shift that book from my battery-depleted iPad to my Kindle.  What’s wrong with just connecting the two devices via Bluetooth?  Not an option.  And look at the crazy lines at the airport as well as the inconsistencies from location to location (e.g., take your shoes off here but not there, remove your iPad here but not there, etc.)

Introduces silly limitations — The best airport example is the simple bottle of water.  Remember the good old days when all you had to do was take a swig of your water bottle to show TSA it’s a harmless liquid?  I miss those days.  Here again, the bottled water industry must be laughing all the way to the bank as we toss half-full bottles on one side of security and then have to buy new ones on the other side.  In the book world DRM means that lending a copy, something easily done in physical world, comes with way too many restrictions in the e-world (e.g., two-week max, can only be done once in the life of the title, etc.)

OK, I admit that I don’t have a solution to offer the airline industry.  I don’t want to board a plane with a terrorist any more than you do.  A pilot friend of mine made an interesting comment about this awhile back though.  He pointed out that one of the results of 9/11 is that passengers are no longer willing to be helpless victims.  The shoe and underwear bomber events are examples of just how true this is.

IOW, passengers are stepping in to fill the holes that will always exist in even the best airport security system.  I suggest we follow a similar approach but take it a step further in the publishing world: Eliminate DRM and trust our customers to not only do the right thing but also ask them to turn in anyone they see making/offering illegal copies.

Via Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog


  1. Good points. “Authors deserve to be paid,” is probably a better counter to “Information wants to be free” inspired theft than all the DRM imaginable. Like passenger responses to post-9/11 attempts at hijacking, it’d help if those who pirate ebooks had to deal with being hassled by their friends.

    Changed attitudes also fits well with social DRM–attaching a buyer’s name to a book. Who’d want to see an ebook they bought somehow end up being pirated in the thousands. Who’d want a friend say, “Hey, you can’t loan me this book. You never bought it yourself”? Social DRM makes clear who bought it.

    I’m about to release a Kindle book. I don’t plan check the DRM option, but I would be great if Amazon could somehow place in the ebook, perhaps as the last page, a note saying, “Purchased by NAME from Amazon” along with a brief message about supporting authors by buying their books. With the new technologies offering authors up to 70% of the retail price rather than the old 5-10%, buying really is supporting the author.

  2. You better believe that if a terrorist had anything less than a hydrogen nuke, I’d tackle him, break all his limbs and jaw, and probably defenestrate him, piece by piece, before I’d let anyone without a MD touch my junk.

  3. Hi Joe. Interesting stuff. I too think DRM is a bit arcane (although all for airport security!). I’d like to live in a world where readers are trusted with their ebook purchases as well.

    It’s perhaps worth pirates while illegally copying music, but is it the same for books? I’m not convinced it is, and I’m pretty sure DRM isn’t good for writers or readers enough to justify it’s existence, and they big players locking down every little bit of information. Sandboxes bread monopolies, and that’s not good for anyone!

    Keep up the good work Airport Security, though!

    Thanks – enjoyed the post.

    Adam Charles

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