Ten duotrigintillion shades of grey: DRM and the world of books

Dave Cramer has been making ebooks for 15 years, and complaining about ebook standards for nearly as long. He was co-editor of the IDPF specification on fixed-layout ebooks, but in recent years has become heavily involved with the W3C and web standards, editing several specs for the CSS Working Group and writing “Requirements for Latin Text Layout and Pagination” for the Digital Publishing Interest Group. When not doing standards work, Dave writes XSL, works on typesetting with HTML+CSS, hunts for interesting information in mountains of XML files, and skis up and down literal mountains, preferably in Canada. He dreams of bringing the rich history of print design and typography to ebooks and the web. He’ll be at ebookcraft 2017 to give a talk called Beyond Good and Evil: The Nuts and Bolts of DRM.

DRM has a bad name. The second Google search result on “DRM” is a site called Defective by Design, which says, “…DRM creates a damaged good; it prevents you from doing what would be possible without it.” The site goes on to talk about “massive digital book burnings” and “large scale surveillance over people’s media viewing habits.” They even say “DRM takes away your right to read.”

The evils of DRM as applied to books were perfectly illustrated when Amazon removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from customer’s Kindles. Amazon apologizedsettled a lawsuit around the deletion for US $150,000, and said they wouldn’t do it again. What was less publicized is that the edition in question was itself illegal; the “publisher” that uploaded it to Amazon did not hold the US copyright.

DRM is ultimately about copyright — who has the right to copy a book? The first copyright law, the Statute of Anne from Great Britain in 1710, begins:

Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families: For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books; May it please Your Majesty, that it may be Enacted…

We still want “Learned Women” to write useful books, and we don’t want anyone’s families left in ruin. So we still have copyright laws.

Why were copyright laws needed? Printing presses made it much easier to copy books — before that you didn’t have to worry much if it took a scribe a year to copy a book. For 300 years we’ve had laws, customs, and businesses built around printed books. But that balance has been upset by digital books, which can be copied instantly and infinitely. How to balance the rights of authors, publishers, readers, and society now? If I buy a print book, I could loan it to my friends, sell it, or donate it to the library. Perhaps a few dozen people would ever read it. But if I put a book on the internet, a million people could read it, and once again authors are looking at ruin for them and their families. That’s called “oversharing” (although the term is a bit Orwellian), and it’s what DRM tries to prevent.

So what exactly is DRM? Our friends at Defective by Design say it’s “the practice of imposing technological restrictions that control what users can do with digital media.” The key word here is “control.” It prevents you from sharing the book, or easily copying it. Essentially DRM is trying to use technology to make a digital book act like a physical book.

The very nature of physical books meant that certain problems never came up. When you loan a book to your friend, you no longer have it yourself. It’s really hard to copy a book, and the copy is likely to be worse than the original. We didn’t need laws or behavioral norms around this kind of thing, because it just didn’t come up.

The whole book industry evolved with digital content and the laws and behavioral norms haven’t caught up. What does ownership mean when the supply of something is unlimited? What am I paying for? What are the rights of authors, publishers, and readers? DRM is a technological substitute for law and culture, and, like many technologies, it can be brittle and awkward.

DRM can be infinitely annoying or mildly annoying. It can be proprietary or open source. It can be evil, of course, or it can be good — without DRM, libraries couldn’t loan you ebooks: “…if after the loan end date, the book is still accessible, this is not a loan, this is a gift.”

Does DRM work? We don’t know. Is it needed everywhere? No. Is it a fact of life? Yes, for now. But if there’s a place for DRM in the world, we should require of it certain virtues: it should be easy to use and not dependent on infrastructure that might disappear, it should not discourage legal use of content, such as screen readers, text-to-speech, backups, etc. Once again, standards and interoperability are required. The Readium Foundation has been working on a DRM standard and an open-source implementation of ebook DRM, known as Readium LCP, or “Licensed Content Protection.”

How does DRM work? What goes on under the hood? Can a little knowledge lead to more informed opinions? What does an encrypted EPUB look like? How are they made? Come to ebookcraft for the cookies and the community, but stay for my presentation Beyond Good and Evil: The Nuts and Bolts of DRM.

Follow Dave Cramer on Twitter and don’t forget to get your tickets to ebookcraft 2017 or you’ll never know the answers to all those questions Dave just posed.


Thanks to the writings of Bill Rosenblatt and Laurent Le Meur for helping me learn about the world of DRM.