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Identifying DRM-free ebooks

Customers deserve to know the restrictions they're buying into

One of my colleagues, Edd Dumbill, asked me a simple question over the holidays that I thought I’d share with the TOC community:

Is there any way to quickly tell whether an ebook on a retailer’s site is DRM-free?

I’m pretty sure the answer is “no” but please tell me if I’m wrong. Sure, it would be possible for a publisher to mention “DRM-free” in the ebook’s description so that it appears somewhere on the product page but will any customers even notice that?

If you’re waiting for a retailer to come up with a solution you’re dreaming because, well, DRM is the mortar that helps retailers build their walled gardens. So what’s the solution? When you walk through the grocery store you can quickly tell which produce is organic, which foods are gluten-free, and which eggs are free-range. Why not come up with a way to easily identify which ebooks are DRM-free as well?

How about creating a simple banner that can be placed on the cover of all DRM-free ebooks telling the customer their purchase won’t lock them into any one platform? Yes, ebook cover images are generally pretty small but I’ll bet we could come up with something effective that doesn’t take up a lot of space. And if it gets used across the industry, customers will start to look for it on future purchases. That would be a great thing for everyone except the walled-garden owners, of course.

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Comments: 36

  1. Amazon’s Kindle store does indicate it, albeit below the description. Like here for Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS: “At the publisher’s request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.”

    • I see it in the description there but it’s not as prominent as I think it could /should be. And since I’ve looked at the product pages for other DRM-free titles on Amazon it’s clear the publisher is doing this, not Amazon. As a result it’s hit and miss (none of the other titles I looked up even have “DRM” on their page).

  2. David Haywood Young

    Sadly, that notice on Scalzi’s book probably wasn’t put there by Amazon. My books are also DRM-free, and there’s nothing. But putting a notice on the book pages probably won’t hurt anything…so I’ll do it.

    And I would definitely go with the emblem on the book cover if someone more graphically ept came up with one!

  3. On Amazon’s web site, at least, the Product Details for the ebook will include the following:
    Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited

    This is synonymous with ‘DRM free’.

    Books with DRM applied will typically state:
    Simultaneous Device Usage: Up to 5 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits

    In addition, some books have a user-generated tag for ‘DRM free’ but I would not rely on that.

    Product descriptions as viewed on a Kindle omit a number of details, including this one.

    I haven’t seen anything equivalent to this on other ebook storefronts (B&N, Apple, Google, etc.) though they all have many DRM free books.

    • I would add that I think the effect of DRM ‘lock-in’ is overrated. On my tablets I can purchase and read ebooks from anyone, and except for Amazon, these are all ‘portable’ to other reading apps as Adobe DRM allows. Most people stick with one vendor because they prefer the experience that vendor offers, they are not trying to ‘escape.’

      That said, I would argue that publishers would do well at least transition to a more user friendly form of DRM such as watermarking (i.e. ask vendors to provide this option). Vendors would do well to make it easier to integrate 3rd party content into their ecosystem (for example as Amazon does with its personal documents service). The flip side of ‘lock in’ is ‘lock out’. 

      • I have to respectfully disagree that lock-in is overrated. You start off by excluding the largest ebook retailer. Even though the other roughly 30% of the market uses EPUB and lets you switch from one Adobe-solution ereading platform to another I wonder if customers of the other 70% of the market would agree they’re free and clear to do what they want. Amazon has done a nice job of offering apps for most platforms but what happens when they stop supporting some of them because Amazon considers them outdated? As a consumer I prefer access without those sorts of limitations.

        • Hope I was clear when I used the term ‘overrated’, I am speaking from my own perspective on the basis of my personal experience and observations of the industry. That is to say, it is an opinion, more or less informed, and biased. 

          There is no way to know for certain what would happen if publishers decide to get rid of DRM. Probably a lot of crazy and interesting stuff. We can only hope, and advocate for this outcome. But ultimately publishers need to make the move, and they’re understandably reluctant to embrace such a change. They have the most to lose, in a relatively low margin industry. In the meantime, I have a lot of reading to do, and I’m not going to let a little DRM get in my way. I think that’s true of most consumers.

          The bricks of the walled gardens are not composed entirely, or even mostly, of DRM. They are composed of complex things like customer loyalty, inertia, contingency, perceived value, self-image, etc. There are some technical restrictions, of course, and for example there aren’t any truly ‘neutral’ mobile platforms but I think stock Android comes closed to that ideal, and that’s what I prefer at the moment. But most people wind up with something less neutral. Those biases will still be in play without DRM. 

          I don’t understand your point about Amazon platform support. Is anybody doing more than Amazon in this regard? If a platform like WebOS dies, is Amazon supposed to keep actively developing for it (in fact you can still download Kindle for WebOS)? Does anybody support OS X 10.5 anymore (Apple does not)? Why doesn’t anybody support Linux? Okay, they let Stanza die when Apple killed it a second time. But it didn’t kill anybody’s library.

          And I don’t exclude Amazon from the overall consideration. I understand how the various DRM schemes work and they are all limiting in various ways. But I don’t see much of a practical distinction between the existing DRMs, they are all too limiting (as are the licensing terms most publishers claim). Amazon’s is better than some (Apple), worse than others (Adobe DRM). It is nuance only. If given a choice, no informed consumer would choose an ebook with DRM instead of one without. There’s not any clear benefit to anybody, its existence is not rationally or evidence motivated, but apparently it doesn’t cause enough pain and friction to publishers, vendors, or consumers to get rid of. Again, consumers really don’t have a choice, unless they are willing to limit their selections to DRM free titles only or to pursue unauthorized sources. 

          I appreciate your continuing strong advocacy for a DRM free ebook world, I do value your opinions, and I’m hopeful we are seeing some movement in the right direction. And for what it is worth I probably spend about as much on ebooks at oreilly.com as I do elsewhere in aggregate. 

        •  and it’s not true that epubs can be platform-independent… for example, I can’t read a B&N Nook book on my Sony 350.

          • Philbert De Zwart

            Epubs can be platform independent. It is the DRM inside the EPUB package that ties you into a particular walled garden.
            The DRM is not part of the EPUB specification but that spec allows you to include DRM in it.

      •  There IS no such thing as user-friendly DRM. It’s like walking into a store and having the manager slap you across the face screaming “You’re a goddamn thief and I’m going to make sure you don’t steal from me.” and then inquiring politely “May I help you sir?”

      • Should have said ‘except for Amazon and Apple’ up there.

        All of the ‘walled garden owners’ offer a DRM free option. If publishers are not choosing this, it is not the vendor’s fault; they are not hiding the option. Nor is it the role of vendors to promote DRM free ebooks, which they can’t do without stigmatizing the publishers who insist on having DRM.

        I think the idea of a logo has merit, but I wonder how quickly people would pick up on it. I can’t say it would affect my purchasing patterns very much, though from a ‘truth in advertising’ perspective I think customers deserve disclosure and not obfuscation and mystery. But there’s a non-trivial education process that needs to happen as well. Why should consumers prefer DRM free content? What is it good for, etc.? 

        And frankly I’d want a ‘good formatting seal of approval’ first. 🙂 Poor ebook formatting remains a continuing annoyance.

        • Seeing the logo on books from one’s default bookstore may not influence purchasing decisions, but seeing the logo on books from other bookstores tells you that you are free to purchase the book and read in on your device, even if your device is not the default device for that bookstore. Such a logo would open up bookstores to users of competitors’ products. Yes, conversion likely would be necessary. But conversion is legal. DRM stripping is not.

          • Kevin O. McLaughlin

            Actually, DRM stripping IS generally legal here in the USA. The Library of Congress deregulated stripping DRM from any ebook where the DRM prevents the read aloud function or reading on special access devices (such as braille e-readers). Since almost all DRM used by publishers does indeed block the read aloud function, almost all DRM used on ebooks today is legal to crack.

          • As I understand it, this is ONLY legal if your usage of the book is prevented by DRM and you have the appropriate medical condition, such as blindness, etc. So people who do not depend upon braille readers, for example, are prohibited from removing DRM.

            Which is BS, but that’s the law.

          • Verbatim, here is the regulation:
            ” Literary works distributed in ebook format when all existing ebook editions of the work (including digital text editions made available by authorized entities) contain access controls that prevent the enabling either of the book’s read-aloud function or of screen readers that render the text into a specialized format.”
            Source: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2010/10-169.html

            There is no mention of the user actually having a disability. It is the fact that the DRM blocks EITHER the “read aloud” function OR prevents use by special screen readers which makes breaking the DRM legal. There is no mention in the regulation of a requirement for the user to be clinically disabled. However, publishers can bypass this regulation by having a DRM free edition or edition which DOES allow read aloud and special access, even if they charge more for that file.

            This means that in most cases, breaking ebook DRM is legal in the US; however, caution is warranted, as one can get in trouble if the publisher has actually taken the time to create an accessible version of a work.

    • Kevin O. McLaughlin

      Yup, that’s one excellent way to tell. Also, any book which shows the “text to speech” function disabled has DRM on it.

      Some publishers are catching on to the idea that readers prefer books without DRM, and are actively marketing their books as “DRM free”. I think this is a good step.

  4. One can always jailbreak the content. I can identify every eBook I’ve ever bought as DRM-Free.

  5. Yes, this is a problem. I’m technically capable of removing the DRM from an ebook I buy and feel morally entitled to do so but I shouldn’t have to and don’t want my purchasing of a DRM’d book to be a signal that I’m okay with using the technology. The tips that “Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited” means a Kindle book is DRM free is useful but you can’t restrict an Amazon search for Kindle books with that detail (well, you can do a Google search of their site using that term but that’s not very useful for discovering works) and it doesn’t help with all the other ebook purveyors. 

    I’m also not inclined to buy Kindle books because Amazon chose to create their own format instead of using the ePub standard. Again, I’m technically capable of converting .mobi files to ePub but I’d rather just buy directly in the format I want.

    • I totally agree, just because we have the knowledge to be able to reformat a book, a movie, a cd or whatever, does not mean that we want to have to do it.  I too am capable of doing these, but would prefer not doing it and using my time on other things.

  6. Joe, I think you’ve identified a very interesting vertical market: those avid readers who value DRM-free sufficient to support a new retail storefront. Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, but it seems like a great eCommerce start-up idea, where the curatorial function is around DRM-free and, as a matter of course, proving out the concept that DRM-free is good for everyone. What do you think?

    • Peter, I’d love to see a DRM-free retailer surface that we could all rally around. In fact, I was originally hoping Google would be that player but it didn’t happen. It’s not Google’s fault, of course. As was noted elsewhere in this thread, it’s really the publishers (and many authors/agents) who are so scared of a DRM-free world. So a retailer startup who focuses on DRM-free content will have a very limited pool of content to offer initially.

      • Kevin O. McLaughlin

        Smashwords is a fully DRM free retailer. They will not place DRM on any of the ebooks they sell. And a couple of years into existence, they’re doing OK out there.

        • I was thinking more along the lines of a site that presented the best of traditionally pub’d and self-pub’d DRM-free titles, by genre.

  7. Sounds like a perfect enhancement to Schema.org http://schema.org/CreativeWork

  8. Great idea.  And of course, DRM-free usually means far more accessible for people with print disabilities using assistive technology.  

  9. I would like a DRM free logo on book covers in the online bookstores. I still might by DRM’ed books but then it’s easy for me to tell if I’m restricted ind the use of my purchase. Actually I think it’s rather annoying that I pay and use my books and then are restricted in how many devices etc. I can use. I’m a Nerd – true… But that means that I have several laptops, iPad, smartphones etc. It’s simply irritating that I have to choose up front which devices the books should be used on… If I don’t want to go jailbreaking and I really don’t…

  10. I just read the following article and thought many would like to read it.
    Tom Doherty Associates, publishers of Tor, Forge, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen, today announced that by early July 2012, their entire list of e-books will be available DRM-free.
    “Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time,” said president and publisher Tom Doherty. “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”
    DRM-free titles from Tom Doherty Associates will be available from the same range of retailers that currently sell their e-books. In addition, the company expects to begin selling titles through retailers that sell only DRM-free books.

  11. Mandatory prominent disclosure of DRM makes more sense to me…

  12. Uh, what about Defective by Design’s DRM-free label in use or the homepage of O’Reilly Ebooks?

    • Right, but what I’m proposing is a label used across the entire industry. If only a small number of publishers use this and it never appears on the big retailing sites such as Amazon it will never become something consumers seek out.

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  14. Hey, Joe. I’m wondering if the whole question of DRM and general trade publishing doesn’t deserve revisiting. With more publishers at least considering selling direct and a handful dropping DRM, I wonder if there isn’t some movement afoot.

    • I hope so, Peter. I don’t anticipate any retailers will open up to this DRM-free badge idea as it undermines their goal of creating a walled garden. I do think more publishers are going to continue experimenting with DRM-free, especially those who realize they need to build a direct channel as well.

  15. Robert Martinengo

    We are working on a system to collect and display accessibility information for ebooks, to make it easier for people with disabilities to determine if an ebook will be accessible to them (which is especially important in the textbook market). DRM also plays a role in accessbility, as others have noted, and is included in the accessibility ‘label’. The pilot project is called the Document Accessibility Profile (DAP) and is available for review at http://stepp.gatech.edu/

  16. Writing novels is a career not to be confused with drinking. Though drinking is fun. You don’t remember half of what you did. As an author I am constantly preparing to write a new novel. Or edit another one. I am always in talks with screenwriters about adaptations of my novels for the big screen.

    And although it has it’s perks being an author has always been a job. It pays to work hard in the arts and entertainment industry. When you sum it up. The arts are fun. But when I started to add entertainment it became very challenging. But the rewards are immense.

    Also the Arts and Entertainment industry should add the $ sign. Reading A&E$

    There are alot of players including Steven Soderberg and Hollywood, the music industry which I am very much a part of professionally and the novel writing industry which I am a professional in.

    Here’s what it boils down to. Our country has always had crack pots who pass of breaking the law as an American tradition.

    But it isn’t about asking the consumer if they’re insulted by DRM presence on their e reader.

    It’s a matter of economics. I applaud Steven Soderberg for coming forward and discussing Hollywood’s piracy problems. I hope to one day go on Nightline and discuss piracy issues in novel writing and the music industry.

    If you want to win an agrument the best way to win my heart is not to call author’s obscure.

    That only makes it clearer that DRM is here to stay.

    Please understand that every American has to abide by the rules that industry standards dictate. When ever I go into Best Buy I fully understand that they have alarms on their CD’s.
    It’s not an insult. When will you evolve?

    The real deal

    • First point. No, Americans do not have to abide by the rules that industry standards dictate; they have to abide by the laws of the United States.

      Second point, at least with respect to Ebooks, there is no evidence that DRM does anything to protect the work of authors. DRM of ebooks can always be circumvented by dedicated pirates (if worse comes to worst, Pirates will simply retype the novel). DRM really only serves to lock consumers in to eco-systems since their books can often not be easily transferred to other ebook eco-systems.

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