DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a technology used by many publishers and bookshops to limit how consumers are able to read their e-books. It is intended as an anti-piracy measure, but it's important to remember who benefits from DRM and why.
DRM is intended to ensure that the author's book is not pirated or illegally copied and sold. But removing DRM from an e-book is a trivial matter.
There are a number of free tools available that do the job. Even legitimate customers use DRM-removal tools to gain access to books they have already bought, or want to move to a different reading device.
So DRM doesn't help authors. In fact, applying DRM to e-books can harm sales. DRM is seen by many as a barrier to purchasing an e-book. Savvy customers who understand the impact it has on their use of the book tend to avoid DRM-encumbered titles.
Surely, the publisher's reason for applying DRM to a book is the same as the author's, to prevent piracy and increase paid sales. Well, we already know that it can be easily circumvented.
Many publishers will state that they are losing sales and should be compensated. But from my personal knowledge of the kinds of people who regularly pirate books, they would never pay to buy the book anyway. There is no loss if there is no sale to lose out on in the first place.
Many authors and publishers have found that simply having the book 'out there' can actually benefit sales. This is a difficult argument to make to concerned publishers and authors, but it stands up to testing. To a certain degree, it can be considered free advertising.
Here's successful author Neil Gaiman to explain.
So the publisher doesn't benefit either.
Does the reader benefit from DRM? Well, the reader is the certainly not benefiting from reading an e-book that has DRM applied to it.
Firstly, they can only barely be considered to actually own the book. Amazon, for example, doesn't sell e-books. When buying e-books from Amazon, customers are only licensing them. They get to read them, and if Amazon decides to, that ability can be rescinded.
Other sellers are a little more lenient and actually sell you the book, but then customers have to use third-party software to read their purchases.
Some companies lock the e-books they sell to their own e-reading devices or applications - a serious consumer rights issue of ever there was one. Locking customers into a particular device's ecosystem means that consumer choice is stifled. The company is given an enormous and dangerous amount of control over the books users can read and what they can do with them.
So, no. Readers don't benefit from DRM.
Who does benefit? Someone must or such a thing as Digital Rights Management would not exist.
DRM software providers
As far as I can see the only beneficiaries of DRM are those that make and sell DRM software and services.
DRM costs money to maintain. The most prevalent DRM system outside of Amazon is Adobe DRM. Readers must not only download a copy of Adobe's Digital Editions software, but must create individual accounts to be able to pass their books through the application and on to their reading device. These accounts are stored on servers maintained by Adobe. And that means they are a target. In fact, Adobe was hacked in 2013, and the personal details of 153 million user accounts were stolen.
Retailers or publishers who sell their own DRM'd e-books directly to customers have an IT infrastructure cost to using DRM. Digital Rights Management requires that the seller pay an ongoing fee to DRM software providers. Those servers don't run themselves.
What happens if the retailer closes down? The customers books are basically orphaned - the ones on the customer's device are safe as long as they stay there. But if a customer needs to download or 'activate' the books again, they simply can't. The books are just useless files taking up space, unless the customer uses a DRM-removal tool to free them. Which makes the entire system seem ridiculous, doesn't it?
Only a few years ago, publishing industry sites were awash with articles extolling the virtues of DRM. But now, only a few years later, things have changed. Take a look at the titles and dates of these search results for "DRM" on The Bookseller. How things have changed.
An alternative solution
DRM is overkill; an attempt to control the after-sale use of digital goods. This simply doesn't work. The author and publisher should certainly be paid for their hard work, but not by limiting consumer rights. If publishers are concerned about piracy and illegal copying, then watermarking is an unobtrusive solution.
Watermarking is where some details about the customer, such as their e-mail address, are inserted into the e-book prior to download. If a copy of the e-book is found online, the customer who shared the book without permission can be identified. This method is sometimes called 'social DRM', where social pressure of having one's name connected to an illegally shared file limits the chances of a file being uploaded in the first place.
Let's get rid of this DRM rubbish, trust readers to buy books that they love, and let's get on with creating and reading some great stories.
Enjoy your DRM-free e-books.