Helping authors publish

Tag: DRM

To DRM or not to DRM?

One of the questions we ask our authors is whether or not they want to enable DRM for their ebooks. Our recommendation is always not to enable it, but as with everything else, it’s the author’s book and so the final decision is theirs. This article explains what DRM is, why you might want it, and why we always recommend against using it.

What is DRM?

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, which is technology that tries to prevent unauthorised copying of electronic files. There are DRM technologies available for various types of electronic files, but this article is only concerned with ebooks.

In theory, an ebook with DRM can only be viewed on an authorised device. In other words, if you buy a Kindle ebook from Amazon, you can read that ebook on any Kindle app or device that is registered to your Amazon account. If you buy an ebook from Kobo, you can read it on any Kobo app or device registered to your Kobo account. There’s no point uploading your file to a piracy site, since no-one else will be able to read it.

Does it stop piracy?

If it worked as intended, DRM would stop piracy. In practice, for anyone who knows how, removing DRM from ebooks is quick and easy. Most readers don’t know how, of course, but anyone wanting to pirate ebooks can find it out from a quick internet search.

This means that pirates know how to get around the restrictions. Thus, the pirates aren’t affected, and piracy isn’t prevented.

What does it mean for readers?

Most of the time, nothing. But if a reader has been reading books on one platform and decides to move to another, they won’t be able to take any DRM’d books to their new ereader. While it’s possible to strip the DRM to do this, the average user is unlikely to know how.

If the vendor decides to stop selling ebooks, the reader will not be able to read their DRM’d books elsewhere. If you’re thinking that’s unlikely, note that Microsoft stopped selling ebooks as recently as 2019. Back in 2013, Kobo removed all self-published books from its catalogue in what turned out to be a temporary purge. In the early days of Kindles back in 2009, Amazon removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles.

So overall, there is no real benefit to enabling DRM, but you might potentially cause problems for readers.

Blockchain: Questions and Concerns

Note: a version of this post was first published on the Alliance of Independent AuthorsSelf-Publishing Advice Centre. Their watchdog, John Doppler, added answers and commentary.

It is said that blockchain technologies will revolutionize publishing. The Alliance of Independent Authors has published a white paper about blockchain. The white paper’s authors seem hopeful that blockchain will help authors to reduce their dependency on large vendors. Blockchain may indeed be a wonderful development, but the more I read, the more I find that I have questions and concerns.

Piracy

One of blockchain’s promises is that it will eliminate piracy. No-one has been able to explain to me just how blockchain prevents piracy, however. We all know that current DRM schemes can be cracked, but it should be noted that this isn’t done by breaking the encryption.

To read the book, the end user has to have a copy of the key. The cracking software finds the key and uses that to create an unencrypted copy of the book. Even with blockchain, the user will need a copy of the key, so what is there to stop software finding that key and using it?

Copyright

Another promise is that blockchain will allow authors to register their copyright and store that registration on the blockchain, where anyone can access it.

These look a lot like a technical version of the old practice of an author posting a copy of the manuscript to themselves. The US copyright office specifically says that the practice is not a substitute for registering the copyright, so it seems unlikely that a blockchain-based version would have any legal weight.

There is certainly a benefit in open access to the register, but that could be done with a standard database and website. It’s unclear what advantage is gained by using blockchain.

Ebook Ownership

One of the more intriguing promises of blockchain is the idea that a buyer can own their copy of an ebook, in much the same way as they own a paper book. Part of this is the ability to sell it second-hand. The change of ownership would be registered on the blockchain, and the original owner would lose access to the book.

The blockchain book sellers that I’ve been able to investigate in sufficient detail don’t store the actual book files on the blockchain. All that is stored on the blockchain is a token indicating who has access to the book. The book file itself has to be downloaded from a server. This leaves open the possibility of the server being taken offline, and no-one being able to access the book, just as happened in 2019 when the Microsoft ebook store went offline.

Ownership of an ebook implies that it can be read on whatever device the user prefers. Indeed, in the ALLi white paper, the Publica CEO says that “books can be discovered by readers without having to sign in, sign up, or subscribe to any walled garden, or pay anyone except the author.” But a book bought from Publica can only be read on the Publica app.

Bookchain is another company that sells books on the blockchain. In their case, users read the book in a web browser. That is more open than Publica, but it also implies that users will lose access to the book if Bookchain’s web server is taken offline.

Conclusion

I’m not fundamentally opposed to blockchain. It may become as integral to our everyday lives as the web is now. But most articles that discuss blockchain’s potential in the publishing sphere offer lots of promises with little to no detail about how these promises will be delivered, and that makes me wary. I’d love to get answers to the questions I’ve outlined, so if you have answers, please leave them in the comments.

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