July 3, 2012

Light DRM, or no DRM?


The debate over Digital Rights Management systems (DRM) continues to rage unabated. Even this week, French Publisher Michel Lafon announced that they are following sci-fi publisher Tor and going DRM-free.

Still, many publishers would like to keep DRM in some form.  To this end, the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), who maintain the EPUB content standard, have published a statement of initial requirements for what they call “lightweight content protection.”

Although they acknowledge that there is growing resistance to DRM from consumers and digital rights advocates, rather than dumping DRM entirely, the IDPF have proposed a new, refined form that would help with device interoperability and allow reasonable sharing.

Per the IDPF, lightweight DRM be defined by the following three factors:

In opposition to the IDPF’s proposal, Joe Wikert, Publisher at O’Reilly Media wrote an open letter to Bill McCoy, IDPF Executive Director, asking that the IDPF advocate for the end of DRM, rather than trying to find a “lighter” solution.  Wikert writes,

“The world doesn’t need another DRM platform, regardless of whether it’s called “lightweight.” DRM is annoying for customers and provides a false sense of security for publishers. As author Charlie Stross wisely stated, publishing’s “pig-headed insistence on DRM on ebooks is handing Amazon a stick with which to beat them harder.”

And yet, from the internet rises another method, spearheaded by the much talked about Pottermore book store. Each book sold from that online store contains a unique digital watermark.  This watermark corresponds to the person that bought the book, enabling the store to track down who pirated copies.  As Nate Hoffeider describes on The Digital Reader,

“Consider for a moment what the watermarks allow Pottermore to do. They are selling DRMed ebooks which can be read on any ereader or app that supports Epub, and with a little effort can be read on the Kindle as well. This gives Pottermore a potential customer base that extends far beyond the reach of any of the major ebookstores and in fact encompasses all the major platforms (Amazon, B&N, Adobe, Apple).”

Still, Pottermore may be able to track down pirating readers, but breaking watermarks is not prohibited under anti-circumvention law. As the IDPF notes, “light” DRM would have the protection of both code and the law, if needed.  Watermarking — which might otherwise amount to spying on customers — is not exactly pro-consumer either.

Publishers don’t seem ready to relinquish DRM and consumers hate it. Are we ready for a fourth option?


Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.