DRM And Protecting E-Books

What is DRM?

Digital Rights Management (DRM) refers to various software technologies that control the unauthorized use, modification, and distribution of digital content like e-books, music, and films. DRM is a complicated subject. For writers, DRM restricts how readers share e-books between users and devices. It’s why you can’t buy a book on Kindle and then share it with your Mom’s book club. It’s also why, if an e-book is DRM enabled, your customers can’t read it on their computer and that new phone they bought.

There are four main DRM systems in use today: Adobe DRM, Amazon Kindle DRM, Apple FairPlay DRM, and Marlin DRM (used by distributors like Kno, an online textbook publisher). If you buy an e-book from any one of these distributors, don’t expect the e-book to be compatible on the other DRM systems.

Should self-publishers enable DRM on their e-books?

If you intend to self-publish an e-book, you’ll need to consider if using DRM is right for your publishing plans. Initially, the EPUB format of your book is DRM free. When you self-publish a book with distributors, you have to decide whether to enable DRM. Before you make that decision, here are a few points to consider.


The main advantage of DRM is that it provides a layer of protection to prevent unauthorized sharing of your e-book. It helps cut down on piracy, sort of. More on that below.


The list of disadvantages is tad longer.

As noted above, DRM makes it difficult for your customer to read your book on multiple devices. If I published on Amazon and checked YES to enable DRM, my customers would only be able to read my book on one device (or a limited number depending on the distributor). Some customers won’t even buy a book that is DRM enabled because of the restrictions on sharing.

Preventing access to an e-book tends to frustrate customers. And one thing a writer doesn’t want is frustrated readers. Writers want their work to be assessable and read. Visibility as a writer is the name of the game, not obscurity, which is why e-book piracy isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Yes, the intellectual property attorney just said: e-book piracy isn’t as bad as it sounds. How so?

DRM makes it difficult to copy and steal digital material, but DRM won’t stop piracy completely. The reason? DRM can be stripped from any e-book. A distributor must allow a reader who bought your book to read it on their device. To do this, the distributor must decrypt the DRM system for that to happen. It makes DRM easy to hack. Tampering with DRM is against the law, but pirates are in the business of breaking the law. If they want your book for free, there are ways to obtain it, no matter how many protections you have in place.

You might hate having work pirated, and there are things that can be done when you find your pirated work online (see my earlier article The Case of the Stolen Content), but pirating promotes your work is some ways too. The person who is willing to download a pirated book was never going to pay for your book to begin with, but at least you’re feeding the word-of-mouth chain about your book. Maybe they share it with more potential readers, or talk about the book—all things that lead to more paying customers.

It’s all about visibility! Studies have shown that piracy increases sales with digital content by increasing visibility. Books sell by word-of-mouth. In fact, some authors use e-book piracy in their marketing plans to sell more books.

Every author is concerned about content theft and piracy but the battle to prevent piracy is constant and hard. Even the music industry has jettisoned DRM-protected formats. Many book retailers are moving toward DRM-free content. Two exceptions are Apple and Amazon KDP where these distributors automatically embed your work with their own DRM formats which limits reading to their devices and apps only.


It’s your decision whether to enable DRM on your e-books, but from my vantage point, DRM doesn’t make sense for self-published authors. I’d rather lose a few books to piracy and promote more visibility. We’ve always allowed printed books to be lent, donated and sold as used books, why tighten up restrictions with e-books? Most distributors will allow you to choose whether you want to enable DRM with your e-books. If you’re traditionally published, you may have a hard time persuading your publisher not to enable DRM depending on the publisher’s piracy policies.

Photo Credit: thedescrier | Visualhunt.com | CC BY

Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.

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