You may never have heard of digital rights management (often known as DRM), but you will be familiar with the concept. Ebooks are subject to copyright concerns in ways that printed books are not: like any computer file, an ebook can simply be copied! This is an issue that has also troubled the music, television, photography and movie industries and, after initially dealing with the whole thing very badly, these industries eventually learned to manage it (sort of).
As with these other industries, publishing has gone for the seemingly obvious solution of placing copy protection on ebook files when they are sold – this is ‘digital rights management’. The idea is simple: when ebook files are sold – not when they’re created; the DRM is applied by the retailer – they are encoded so that they can only be used by the person who purchased them and can’t be copied. So how well do you think that’s worked? Just like movies and music, it hasn’t really.
The only way to make a computer file completely safe is to make it impossible to copy, but this is no use because the legitimate buyer needs to be able to download the ebook. Basically publishers and retailers have not been able to come up with a solution that will allow their legitimate customers to download ebooks but then not allow anybody else to pirate them.
The downside of DRM for readers is it makes it less convenient for them to purchase and read ebooks. DRM locks readers into a single platform; on your Kindle you can only download ebooks from Amazon, on a Kobo ebook reader you can only download ebooks from Kobo. Understanding why ebook retailers want to lock their customers in isn’t hard, but it comes at the expense of ease and convenience for readers. It also means you can’t freely move the book around on your different devices – and this is a book you’ve legitimately paid for. Some people argue that DRM actually encourages piracy because people want to be able to use their ebooks how they like, not how the retailers say they should.
So, what should you do? Well, sometimes you won’t have a choice, because many of the ebook retailers you sell through will simply apply DRM automatically whether you want to or not. But, when you have a choice, it’s up to you. Most authors still choose to have DRM. It seems to be a reflex; they think some protection must be better than none.