What the heck is DRM and why should you care?

This is a copy of my guest post for the Muskrat Press blog. I’d like to thank them for hosting my article.Muskrat is publishing two new books this quarter by a couple of amazing authors: Lisa Alber and Jeanie Burt. Don’t miss these great debut novels.


What the heck is DRM and why should you care?

You’re setting up your Kindle Direct Publishing account and Amazon asks you if you want to enable DRM.  You may wonder to yourself, “What in the hell is DRM?” Briefly, DRM or Digital Rights Management is a process by which the creator, publisher or seller of digital works, notably music, movies, software, or most importantly for the writer or small press publisher, ebooks, controls the use and distribution of their product. In the dawn of the computer age, when floppy disks were still floppy, computer memory was measured in kilobytes, not gigabytes and the internet was the province of Unix geeks, DRM was basic and merely prevented the unauthorized copying of computer software.

Today DRM has expanded to protect all digital works sold over the Internet, but DRM’s  reach has also grown to prevent unauthorized viewing, sharing or other distribution of electronic media. DRM can also be used to delete legally purchased ebooks from a user’s eReader. In 2009, Amazon did just that, deleting copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from their customer’s kindles. Egad! Seems that Amazon was selling unauthorized versions of Orwell’s cautionary tale. Ah, the irony of it all.

We mainly hear about DRM when it comes to pirating music and movies. The Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) aggressively pursue those that pirate the works of their clients..

There are two primary ways that DRM protected ebooks can be cracked or stripped of DRM. If you’re a small press or someone considering self-publishing, you’ve probably heard of a software program called Calibre. Calibre can be used to transform a word document into ebook format such as mobi, epub, or pdf. But it can also be used to strip off DRM and provide the user with a ‘clean’ copy of the work. This would avoid the possibility of a third party, such as Amazon, deleting the ebook from your reader. If you obtained your original copy legally and you don’t give it to anyone else, then you may not be in violation of copyright law, but I’m not a lawyer, so your mileage may very on this one.

Calibre is a moderately geek-oriented program and most ebook owners wouldn’t bother with the process. Much more likely is someone firing up their Bittorrent or Usenet client and downloading the pirated work which has the DRM already stripped from the book. Then the work must be transferred by a USB cable to the eReader. The RIAA and MPAA focus a lot of their time trying to stem piracy on Bittorent, but to date, there is no single group that represents authors or publishers of ebooks. We’re pretty much on our own.

Back to the original question: should you enable DRM? In the end, it’s up to you as the writer or publisher. DRM will protect your work from piracy from those without the technical skill or inclination to use somewhat geeky methods to pirate your book. The drawback to enabling DRM especially on a kindle or nook platform, is that you, the writer or publisher, may not actually control the digital rights, the maker of the eReader does. Amazon or Barnes and Noble could pull down your book without notice or decide not to support the product as Yahoo did in 2008 when they shut down their music store and shut down their DRM servers. One way to reduce the likelihood of piracy is to price your book realistically. Don’t ask $9.99 for a short story. For a beginning writer at least, your goal should be to attain the widest audience possible, not try to gouge an extra buck from your reader. Also, don’t read, view or listen to pirated works. You can’t expect people to walk the straight and narrow if you don’t do so yourself. Think about the pros and cons of DRM and make the decision that’s the best for you.





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