Is Digital Rights Management (DRM) Worth Using?
The protective dream of DRM doesn’t actually stack up to its reality. Here’s why.
Online piracy is often a digital content creator’s worst nightmare; the project they worked so hard to create being stolen from them can feel like a slap in the face. There’s a reason that copyright laws are in place, after all. Creators should be able to decide that only those who obtain their work through the appropriate channels get the permissions they need to enjoy it.
So, many content creators and distributors seek copy protection and access control of their copyrighted works through systems known as DRM. But are these tools actually effective? How does DRM work, and do you really need it for your books?
What is Digital Rights Management?
Digital Rights Management, or DRM for short, is a technological failsafe originally designed to prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to the copyrighted material and/or confidential information contained in a digital good - including games, audiobooks, music, computer programs, etc. - in an effort to prevent piracy, unauthorized use, and protect the creator of the digital media. It’s the computer equivalent of a security tag on a piece of clothing in a store that sets off an alarm or makes the clothes unwearable if not properly removed.
DRM is commonly used across a number of industries but is most well known as part of music, media, and digital publishing. Think of it like an extension of copyright protection that’s a bit more proactive. Instead of going after those that have already stolen a piece, it prevents that theft from happening in the first place…in theory.
How does DRM technology work?
DRM works through what boils down to a subprogram that is coded into every legitimate copy of a digital file that is going to be distributed before it’s sent out. This program is usually quite small, not adding much to the total upload or download of the file itself, and is largely dormant.
It may be activated when a user attempts unauthorized copying of the file, or accesses it over a certain number of times. It may also limit the number of devices or kinds of devices that can access the protected content (for example, iTunes music requiring iOS.)
There’s another method of DRM in which the content creator or copyright holder can encrypt the file so that only those with the appropriate decryption key can access it. They can also set limits for how long the file can be accessed or apply social DRM in the form of a watermark to documents or images so that it’s easy to identify a document owner (and from there track down the source of a leak or piracy.)
Additionally, there are some apps and programs that prevent you from taking screenshots of a file completely by blocking the function with a black screen or stopping it from completing in the first place (this is a technique used by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime for some of their original shows).
DRM in ebooks
In ebooks specifically, DRM content protection is most often used to prevent readers from either sharing or reselling their copy of a book or to prevent them from reading them on devices that aren’t approved by the distributor. For example, Apple Books files obtained through the iTunes store can only be opened on devices running iOS. Amazon’s Kindle book libraries use a DRM system to keep downloaded files on Kindle devices specifically. Ebook readers may have restrictions on acceptable file formats (like Amazon’s now-retired mobi ebook format) to keep users locked into needing to use that specific device to read a DRM protected ebook.
What are the benefits of Digital Rights Management?
Theoretically, DRM protection is useful in preventing unauthorized access and copyright infringement by those who shouldn’t be able to use your intellectual property (to read your book, play your game, or listen to your music) - such as those who access them via file-sharing websites or steal them from a paying customer. This is attractive to content creators because it sounds like it’s saving them money; those who download illegally won’t be able to profit from those downloads through resale or lending, nor will they be able to escape giving you the royalties you’d earn from a legitimate purchase.
Beyond that, DRM does offer a matter of exclusivity that’s required by some platforms including the largest ebook retailer in the world, Amazon. This exclusivity means that you are able to access more of their features including special promotions and marketing opportunities like KDP Select and countdown deals.
That being said, the risks of using DRM far outweigh the benefits.
Is DRM effective for anti-piracy protection?
Strictly speaking, DRM does to some degree prevent copying and sharing of a work. The problem is that it a) doesn’t do it for very long and b) alienates paying customers who might otherwise enjoy the work that you’re selling.
Let’s look at point A for a minute. The truth is that DRM is nowhere near as sophisticated as many big-box retailers, digital asset management providers, and business moguls like to pretend. According to qualified programmers and computer software hobbyists, breaking DRM can take as little as a matter of days, depending on how dedicated you are. Heck, there are multiple entire online guides showcasing DRM removal tools for books, music, games, and other files that are simple enough that someone who is nearly completely programming-illiterate (hello, me) can follow them easily enough. A simple YouTube search like “remove DRM amazon kindle” brings up dozens of videos on how to crack Amazon DRM using Calibre or other programs. (I’m not linking the search results. Try that search on your own if you want confirmation.) So, at most, DRM is temporarily effective at preventing piracy.
As an example of how quickly DRM can be broken, let’s look at the real use case of the release of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed 2 in 2009. Capitalizing on the success of the first game in the series, this major development studio released a sequel with one major caveat: to “prevent piracy,” players of this game needed an internet connection at all times. The DRM encoded in the game used the internet connection to verify the user’s Ubisoft account and ensure that it was active, which was supposed to prevent redistribution. This was met with instant community backlash; players in areas with unstable internet were completely barred from playing the game they’d purchased. Additionally, on release day, Ubisoft’s servers were so overwhelmed with authentication requests that they crashed completely - meaning that none of the people who purchased Assassin’s Creed 2 could play it on release day.
Instead of heeding their customers’ complaints, however, Ubisoft doubled down and insisted that those who complained must have malicious designs against the game, naming them would-be pirates. So, of course, code-crackers got to work immediately and within one month of the game’s release, there was a freely-accessible patch that broke the DRM and allowed players to enjoy their games offline. It was so successful, in fact, that the same patch allowed players to break into Ubisoft’s next game within days of its release. To this day, Ubisoft has not admitted that its DRM was unsuccessful.
Back to point B, more and more, content owners - the people who actually buy your work - are making their voices heard when it comes to their opinions of DRM and how they view it. According to many people, DRM serves to remove the ownership legally transferred to the end user by allowing the content distributor full control over their product even after purchase; essentially, you no longer own this product that you were explicitly told you were buying ownership of, and instead, you’re renting it from the distributor until such time as they decide they do not want you to have it anymore.
While this sounds dastardly and impossible, it’s actually happened multiple times. For just one example, Microsoft used to run an ebook store on their online ecommerce platform. It was quite popular for a short time, with thousands of people buying ebooks for various Microsoft devices. Unfortunately, it was not particularly profitable, so Microsoft decided to shut it down in 2019…and take all of the books with it. When the store was shut down, the company used its DRM software to completely delete the ebook files that customers had purchased from their devices and issued refunds to their accounts a few months later. Between the deletion and the refund, though, Microsoft was essentially involuntarily recalling (read: corporate stealing) their products. While technically this isn’t illegal - users “bought access” to the books that was then revoked for a refund - it did alienate thousands of people from Microsoft as a brand and drove their business elsewhere, as well as leaving tons of poor publicity for the company online.
So not only is DRM relatively easy to break, but it’s also a particularly cruel twist in licensing agreements that prevents customers from ever fully owning the product they pay for. For these reasons and more, some publishing companies are forgoing DRM entirely. Smashwords, which is one of the largest distributors of indie ebooks, only sells DRM-free ebooks. Baen, a traditional publisher of science fiction and fantasy, releases all of their books DRM-free. Likewise, all ebook downloads available through Laterpress are DRM-free. This way, whether you want to read an epub file off your PC, Kobo, Nook, Kindle, or other ebook reader, you know you’ll be able to access and enjoy the book you just paid for, and that access won’t be taken away from you later.
Alternatives to DRM
Writing and self-publishing a book takes a lot of time and effort, so it’s understandable why authors would consider DRM solutions in an attempt to curtail piracy and protect revenue. However, the type of people who would download your book illegally are highly unlikely to pay for your book through legal means, so considering piracy as “lost sales” is dubious.
Instead of relying on DRM to protect your work from people wanting to read it for free, it may be more productive to protect your intellectual property from those who would attempt to monetize it, and counter those efforts if they arise. Consider officially registering the copyright on your book so you have greater legal recourse against its misuse. Understand your rights related to the licensing and use of your work, and how to spot scammers. Writers associations may also have resources at their disposal to help you combat unauthorized use of your books, characters, worlds, or other elements of your intellectual property.
There are only so many hours in a day. Rather than engaging in battle with the freeloaders, what actions can you take to grow and expand the number of people ready and eager to support your author career? The 20Books to 50k conferences offer a wealth of lectures from established authors on how to accomplish this. A few panels I highly recommend include:
Erika Everest - Slowly Building A Platform
Bryan Cohen - 1000 True Fans for Authors
Malorie Cooper - How to Attract the Right Readers That Will Stay With You
If you want to have alternate access options to your books so those with financial limitations can enjoy your work, you might consider some of the following ideas:
- Creating free companion pieces for your main series
- Offering a condensed “SparkNotes” version of your story for reviewers and others to reference
- Enrolling your book in book lending programs like Kindle Unlimited (or Kobo Plus, which does not require exclusivity like KU does.)
- Instead of asking readers to pay for the content itself, set up a system that allows them to read it ahead of its regular schedule if they purchase - for example, those who subscribe to you on Patreon or Laterpress might get to read chapters one week ahead of anyone else. Or do the reverse, and release at a price, with readers knowing if they wait X amount of time, certain books / stories will later become free.
- Listing your books in the library system through distributors like Hoopla.
Digital rights management sounds on the surface like a necessary protection for authors, but the truth is, if someone wants to get into your book illegally, a few lines of code aren’t going to be enough to stop them. In the end, DRM takes rights away from your customers that they shouldn’t have to give up and can sour your reputation in a worst-case scenario, making the sale of future books significantly harder.
Rather than rely on DRM to curtail pirates and freeloaders, take reasonable actions to protect your IP, then focus on growing your fanbase of customers eager to pay for your work. Consider ways to give those who can’t afford your books a way to enjoy them, as any reader coming directly to you for content instead of a pirate site is someone you may eventually convert into a paying customer; those readers who really do want to support you still will.