Should E-books be Offered Sans Digital Rights Management?

By Laura Kemmerer

With the advent of the e-book, publishers and bookstores are under the gun to keep up with the dramatic changes that are now threatening their respective industries. Transition from print to e-books was hardly easy, but companies like Amazon met the change with finesse. And while Barnes & Noble was a little late on the e-book bandwagon, both companies fared far better than Borders. Yet, just as publishers and booksellers have started to make the adjustment, a new business practice has taken the e-book world by storm—e-books that are Digital Rights Management free.

What is Digital Rights Management?

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Digital Rights Management, or DRM, was originally instituted as a way for various entertainment industries to stop piracy in an attempt to cut financial losses. This effort has made a number of consumers unhappy as they hold the belief that once they pay for something, such as a piece of software, they should be able to have that item on as many machines as they need. Consumers may feel that they are not buying the actual product, but instead, purchasing a certain number of times they will be legally allowed to use the goods. From a company’s viewpoint, a single copy of a game may potentially be passed along from friend to friend, yielding profits from a single unit purchased, rather than a profit from multiple units.

With the advent of threats to intellectual property like Napster in the mid-1990s, the U.S. government decided it was necessary to update existing copyright laws. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which became effective in 1998, made circumvention of electronic copyright illegal.

E-books and the Scope of DRM

When it comes to e-books, DRM poses its own unique set of problems. Books purchased on Amazon can only be read on a Kindle or through a Kindle Reader App and books purchased through Barnes & Noble can only be read on a Nook. There is no allowance for cross e-reader sharing, and while that may look like a wise business practice on the surface it can only promise unnecessary stunting of both markets. E-books that are DRM-free are a way for the consumer to be unrestricted in their consumption of reading material. Consumers crave convenience, not restriction. However, there are publishers who are looking to release DRM-free e-books.

Pottermore: Is the E-book version of the Harry Potter Series actually DRM-free?

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At first glance, the announcement from the Pottermore website—which is run by Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling—that the series would be released in DRM-free e-book format sounded revolutionary. It seems truly to be a push for a less frustrating e-reader experience for everyone. But according to the GeekWire website, this seemingly noble act on behalf of the Harry Potter franchise isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. According to GeekWire, although the books start out as DRM-free on the Pottermore website, when a customer buys the books and seeks to read them through the Kindle Reader App, or through any other e-book seller, the respective retailer will attach DRM automatically.

According to the Pottermore website, the books can be downloaded for personal use up to eight times, stating the buyer can have a copy of the book on their computer, smartphone, tablet, e-reader or other compatible devices. The Amazon website also states that the book can be on multiple devices at once, “up to 100 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits.” Taking the Geekwire article into consideration, it would seem the “per publisher limits” is up for interpretation.

Tom Doherty Associates Offer E-books that are DRM-free

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Whether or not Harry Potter books are truly DRM-free, there is a publisher that is willing to release all of their e-books as DRM-free. Tom Doherty Associates LLC announced that starting in early July all of their Tor and Forge published e-books will be DRM-free. Tor and Forge Books publish books ranging from science fiction and fantasy tales to historical fiction and mysteries. According to Tor’s website, the company’s president Tom Doherty said, “Our authors and readers have been asking for [DRM-free books] for a long time. They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”

While the idea of DRM-free e-books is still considered rocky ground for many publishers and booksellers, it’s refreshing to see one of the giants taking a risk. Tom Doherty Associates have also announced that they will be selling their books through all current vendors as well as branching out to retailers that only deal with DRM-free e-books. The Tor Books website is also set to sell Tor and Forge DRM-free e-books starting sometime this summer. With all of these options, it looks like other publishing titans have a thing or two to learn from the creators of Tor and Forge Books.

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