My take on DRM

There are few more contentious topics in ebooks, or digital media, in general, than DRM. Digital Rights Management.

What is it? What does it do and why in the world would I want it?

DRM is meant to protect unlawful copy of copyrighted material. It is meant to insure that the copy of 50 Shades of Grey that you bought for your NOOK doesn’t get sent to your 20 best girlfriends. It is meant to protect the publisher and I guess author’s ability to collect money from an increasingly portable medium.

This protection is considered important because it is a lot easier to copy a digital file today than it was in the analog days. When you had to walk to the Xerox machine and copy a physical book one page at a time. Although that method had protection too, it was called laziness and .25 a sheet copies. Although that didn’t stop my High School Biology teacher from Xeroxing the entire contents of Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone” for us to read in class. That being said, he probably had a school copier and use a student aide to overcome the archaic copy protections of the 90’s.

In any case, I often get asked my opinions on DRM thanks to my helping moderate a NOOK fan page on Facebook. When I say I’m often asked my opinion, I mean I’m asked “What’s your problem, man? You on some kind of power trip? You suck!” In their sincere appeal for clarity I’ve decided to share with you my own two cents on the issue.

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to DRM, or more accurately, the removal of it. The first school of thought is: It’s Illegal! The second school of thought is: It is NOT Illegal. My take on the matter is: I’m not a lawyer. And either are you. Or maybe you are and I’m grossly out of touch with my demographic. Which until now I thought consisted of my wife and mom occasionally. – Love you both!

But I digress. My official stance on DRM is that it is a pain in the ass. Furthermore it is annoyingly easy to remove, which means that it’s really more of a deterrent to honest, good folks who weren’t likely to rob you blind anyhow. What are authors and publishers really afraid of you may ask and the answer is piracy. The author and publisher are concerned that you’ll buy The Hunger Games and send a copy of it to every person you know with an eReader. It’s a legitimate concern, but DRM isn’t the fix and they know it.

Great, so what’s it mean?

Barnes & Noble actually uses a combination of your full name and your credit card number to generate your DRM key. With that information the NOOK or NOOK software is able to unlock the file and you can view it. However, without the key – your file is useless. So long as the NOOK DRM servers are standing you should never have a concern with your DRM protected files. You are who you say you are and the files will unlock every time. However, if B&N decides to shut down the server, that leaves a lot of us with books up on their server, in their cloud, out of our reach.

It is very unlikely that we would be taken in such a fashion but the concept itself isn’t unthinkable. You really need look no further than a Microsoft developed DRM called PlaysForSure. Microsoft closed their MSN Music store and shut down the DRM approval servers. Prior to doing so they let everyone know so they could generate a local key to keep their purchased music playing. But what if you don’t back up your machine properly and lose that key? All of the music you purchased is now useless. Further claims made against PlaysForSure is that that key was married to the PC you owned, so you couldn’t copy it to a new computer if you purchased new. That, my friends, is why DRM is bad, m’kay?


So what do we do about it?

Well, that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? There are a number of ways to remove DRM from your digital files. Google is your best friend is this regard. As for the legality – remember, I’m not a lawyer. The major legal battle field seems to be between fair use and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Fair use allows you to backup software, music, etc. you own, while DRM prevents it in most cases. Cracking DRM can be considered illegal depending on your intention. If you break DRM to make a backup, the law would seem to say you are alright to do so. If you do it to share your book with a friend, then you are committing an illegal act.

Now here is where the law gets a little foggy. That Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it a criminal act to develop a piece of software that removes DRM as well as distribute it. So it’s a chicken and egg kind of deal. Someone has to break the law, so you can make non-DRM protected copies. Someone has to break the DRM. Illegal. Someone has to write an application that can do it en masse. Illegal. Someone has to distribute that method. Illegal. So you can backup your books without fear of losing them someday. Which may or may not be legal.

Are you thoroughly confused? I know I am.


So what do you personally do?

That, my friends, is a question that I am not going to answer. Again, because I’m not a lawyer. No one should be able to sue me for removing DRM, but you shouldn’t be able to be held indefinitely without trial in this country either but apparently our current administration thinks that’s alright now. So I’ll plead the 5th, while I’m still able to do so but I’ll drop a few opinions.

In my opinion, I should be able to whatever I like with the books I own as long as it is for my own use. So if I want to buy an ebook from B&N and read it on my NOOK, cool. If I want to read it on my phone, cool. If I want to read it on my iPad in iBooks since their book sync technology is so much further along than the NOOK, then I should be able to. If I want to serve up my personal library in Calibre via the Content Server, I should be free to do that as well.

It is my opinion, that if you are removing DRM for your own use, and not to the detriment of the copyright holder, then you should be free to do so.

In my opinion, DRM is like securing your bike to a tree with a piece of rope. Honest folks are going to understand the bike is being held for its legitimate owner and will leave well enough alone. Criminals are going to cut your rope and take your bike. DRM is just as easy to remove in the case of ebooks. That means that DRM is only inconveniencing the honest customers since it isn’t working against the real threat.

It seems you dislike DRM, so why do you get your panties in a bunch on Facebook?

The answer to that is an easy one. Because I’m asked to. I’m not the creator of our group. I’m just asked to enforce the rules that the groups owner set.

But also because I don’t think we have any lawyers. IF ripping DRM is illegal, I don’t think you should necessarily run around in a public forum like Facebook talking about doing it. Unless you’re N.W.A., I would leave the whole “F*** the Police” shtick out of the public eye.

God, this is so long. Would you wrap this up already?

Fine. In summary, I can condense all of this into the following: DRM is idiotic but protecting our authors and the publishers’ investment in them is a good cause. DRM is just simply not the way to go about protecting that investment.