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“Why I break DRM on e-books”: A publishing exec speaks out

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Calls for big-six publishers to drop DRM have increased in recent weeks, coinciding with the DOJ price-fixing lawsuit. Many observers fear that the lawsuit will actually reduce competition in the e-book marketplace by cementing Amazon’s (s AMZN) role as the dominant player — and they wonder whether DRM is simply another weapon in Amazon’s arsenal, keeping customers locked to the Kindle Store.

Here at paidContent, independent e-bookstore Emily Books‘ Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have argued that DRM is crushing indie booksellers online. And Hachette VP, digital Maja Thomas recently described DRM as “a speedbump” that “doesn’t stop anyone from pirating.”

Still, it may be a long way from this discussion to the first big-six publisher’s actual removal of DRM from its e-books. For now, many readers know they can download free tools to let them read a Barnes & Noble (s BKS) Nook book on a Kindle, or an Apple (s AAPL) iBookstore book on a Nook, or a Google (s GOOG) book on a Kobo. I’ve used these tools. I recently bought a Google e-book from an independent bookstore, broke the DRM and converted it to read on my Kindle.

Recently, I began chatting with a publishing industry executive about this. This person — who I’ll call Exec — was interested in learning how to break DRM on e-books. About a month later, Exec is a convert and was ready to talk about the experience, albeit anonymously. I don’t think Exec is the only person in the publishing industry breaking DRM on e-books they buy…and those who aren’t doing so already might want to give it a try, if only to see what readers go through. Here is Exec’s story.

I was coming to the conclusion that I wanted to start breaking DRM on e-books I bought so that I could read them on any e-reader, but what pushed me over the top was a terrific post from science-fiction author Charlie Stross, “Cutting their own throats.” He argues that DRM is a way for the Amazons of the world to create lock-in to their platforms.

By that point, I had purchased several dozen e-books from Amazon, and thanks to the fact that Amazon has Kindle apps for all major platforms I didn’t feel all that locked in. But what happens when Amazon decides not to support a platform? Or what if it rolls out new features on Kindle e-readers but doesn’t make those features available on the Kindle apps?

I had also bought an e-book from Apple and quickly realized the options there were even more limited. You’ll probably never see an iBooks app for Android, for example. I decided it was time for me to take control and not let the retailer lock me in.

I had thought about breaking DRM before, but had never done so. A key reason why I didn’t is that I want to honor the IP rights of publishers. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized: I bought the book, and now I want to be able to read it on any device I choose.

I want to be clear about how I’ve been using these unlocked books. I’m not sharing them with anyone. They’re all just for my use. I’m not putting them on a torrent, or even sharing them with family or friends.

I believe this is justified because I realize that when I buy an e-book from Amazon, I’m really buying a license to that content, not the content itself. This is ridiculous, by the way. I feel as if e-book retailers are simply hiding behind that philosophy as a way to further support DRM and scare publishers away from considering a DRM-free world. I’m not going to say where I work, or anything about my company, but I will say that I don’t think DRM is good for the publisher, author or customer. Don’t pro-DRM publishers realize this is one of the key complaints from their customers? I’ve heard plenty of customers tell me that e-book prices need to be low because they’re only buying access to the content, not fully owning it. That needs to change.

The actual process of breaking the DRM was pretty easy. There are plenty of how-to resources that are only a Google search away from you. I’ve now unlocked books from both Amazon and Apple, and I ran into minor hiccups with both. But a bit of digging online and help from a trusted friend got me through it. Now I can read those books on any device I want to. My advice to newbies is to not give up. If you run into a problem, look around and I bet you’ll find the answer online. I think most readers would be able to do this easily. It just requires a bit of detective work and not giving up if you hit a roadblock.

Do I feel “evil”? No, not really. If I was giving these books away, I would, but I’m the only person using them.

I’m not aware of any other publishers who are doing this. Then again, I’m sure anyone who is would like to keep that confidential, just like me. And I think publishers should try it out so that they can see just how much of a waste DRM is. In about 15 minutes, anyone can unlock just about any e-book out there.

A month or so in, breaking DRM has become a regular part of my e-reading experience. I don’t even think twice now whether I can only read this book on that platform. They’re all options for me. I plan to unlock every book I buy from now on.

34 Responses to ““Why I break DRM on e-books”: A publishing exec speaks out”

  1. When the anonymous executive speaks of “respecting IP rights”, he repeats a common confusion. What he means is “copyright”, and calling it “intellectual property” confuses that with several other unrelated laws.

    See for more explanation.

    Whether copyright law itself deserves to be “respected” is a complex question, but at least it is a meaningful question.

  2. Library Director

    There has not been any mention of what DRM is doing to libraries all over the world. It has only been about 6 months that Amazon has even worked with public libraries and there are, increasingly, more publishers who refuse to sell us ebooks. As it is, we have only one vendor (Overdrive) that’s negotiating with Amazon/publishers on our behalf, and we’re paying higher prices than the average consumer with no control over the content: If Overdrive went out of business, the $100K my library has spent on e-books would be lost, since the big publishers are unwilling to transfer the licenses to the purchasing library. Needless to say, we are strong advocates of DRM removal.

  3. Guillaume

    “I want to be clear about how I’ve been using these unlocked books. I’m not […] even sharing them with family or friends.”

    Whoah, sharing it with your family ? Now this would really be evil ! I hope if your wife looks over your shoulder you prevent her, after all she isn’t licensed for this book…

  4. “Do I feel “evil”? No, not really. If I was giving these books away, I would, but I’m the only person using them.”

    Do you feel “evil” when you visit a library?

  5. myelbowsonthetable

    This is why I simply won’t buy anything with DRM, not a book, or music. That way I don’t need to use my time or tools to break it.

  6. myelbowsonthetable

    I simply won’t buy something with DRM, including music. That way. . . I don’t have to worry about using my available tools to break it.

  7. Chris Bass

    I think this is one of the hindrances when it comes to e-books. Readers could be more swayed to read with e-readers if that book were available on all formats without conversion. BookTango – a popular e-book publishing platform, actually releases books in all formats for just that purpose.

  8. ereader

    My solution was to buy a Nook and root it so that I can access my Kindle library and PDFs through Android-based apps. It took maybe twenty minutes to root the machine. I can’t read iBooks, but the iBook library is not especially robust and I don’t use it anyway.

  9. pdurrant

    The most recent version of the tools went up on March 7th. Here we are, just over six weeks later, and they’ve been downloaded almost 50,000 times from the original site. Goodness knows how many times from other sources.

    Are we allowed to mention Apprentice ALf’s blog? I did notice a distinct lack of suitable google search terms in the article!

  10. Per Laura’s request, a few thoughts on the above. First, I believe this is the first time I’ve ever noticed a publishing executive acknowledge that what consumers get when they pay money for an ebook is a license. This is a huge acknowledgment (one I think speaks to the value of ebooks, from the perspective of a consumer, and possibly raises reporting issues with regard to author royalties).

    The next thing that jumped out at me is the suggestion that retailers are driving DRM. In some ways I agree with this statement, but publishers state, over and over, that it is authors demanding DRM. Authors say it’s publishers. Obviously, DRM creates consumer lock-in, which makes the retailers happy, but (I believe) consumers are generally lazy and likely to shop in the most convenient manner, so they’d essentially be locked-in with our without DRM. Losing the DRM would offer up more choices to the consumer, which is good, but I think they’d still have primary loyalty to one retailer.

    Finally — and I think this is important — this unnamed executive notes he/she is unlocking the books for personal use, not piracy. It is my experience (and I’ve been reading/writing about this since, sigh, 1998) that most people are trying to make it easier for themselves to read. Yes, you will have some pirates out there. Pirates have been a part of human commerce as long as we’ve been human.

    It’s very good to see a publishing executive look at this issue from the perspective of a consumer. I don’t think that happens often enough!

  11. Anomalous Press

    As the publisher of Anomalous Press (albiet a small, literary press) I’ve been committed to making content available DRM free and in multiple formats (Kindle, EPUB, PDF and audiobook). For us, it’s about getting the literature read, not squeezing every penny out of a potential market. I think that has its own rewards.

  12. Steve Welch

    I am also a publishing industry exec, and I also break the DRM on ebooks. This was made necessary when Barnes and Noble purchased Fictionwise and then killed it (or put it into an irretrievable coma), without bringing the old Fictionwise/Ereader customers into B&N. Faced with my library of more than 400 ebooks that couldn’t be read on ANY modern device, I felt fully justified in breaking the DRM. If I buy a print book, I’m not compelled to return to the store where I bought it just to read it. DRM provides a false sense of security to authors and publishers who think it keeps people from pirating their books. To which I reply, with a copy of your print book, I can have a pirated ebook online in less than an hour. Stop cutting your own throat by buying in to the DRM myth.

  13. If “Exec” actually exists, and that seems extremely doubtful given the ignorance of the comments s/he has made, s/he has little grasp at all on what it means to be a publisher. The only way Amazon could create lockdown for publishers is if publishers sell them exclusive rights. An e-publishing garden that has a variety of DRM-protected, branded interface-experiences is a very GOOD thing for publishers as it diversifies and increases their market.

    DRM is not the problem. Allowing an Amazon monopoly is the problem.

  14. mi737373

    DRM is the right of the content producer or publisher not the assumed right of the consumer to have free access. It costs money to produce books, yes ebooks, and human resources. DRM should not go away it should be made much better and the courts need to go after anyone offering work arounds. I have used DRM in the B2B world. It failed miserably on the front end. Not becasue it didn’t work, but because it required a downlaod that most corporate systems would not allow. However, we found another way of doing DRM. It allowed for sharing the paid content but tracking the share. This allowed for viral makreting and exposure along with usage tracking to go sell more content subscriptions to “offenders”. If there were a way to apply this concept to the consumer end, it would be a very different type of DRM. But publishers must protect their work. When you go to a store to buy something it is protected as best it can be from theft (cameras checkout clerks, in store secturity etc.) yet theft happens all the time. That doesn’t mean you depend on a pay if you want system. DRM should not be about locking anyone into one particular system, it should however allow the content producer to control when their content is free and when it is paid for and how it is shared. Having the convenience of reading your paid for ebook on any device should not be the issue. I think a lot of this goes away as the industry consolodates to one ebook format.

    • Correct, it is the publisher’s right to sell^d offer ebooks with or without DRM. It’s my right as a customer is to choose to spend my money on those without.

      • mi737373

        Except you will not necissarily spend your money on non DRM material. A friend will send it to you and it will go viral for no money. You are gaming the content provider on the basis of your convenience. without DRM of some kind (which I mentioned in first response) content providers potentially work for free to appease supposedly well meaning folks like you who will of course always pay for their content even if it is free all over the itnernet. I wonder if you are willing to do your job on the basis of hey, most people will pay for most of my work. Doesn’t work well in the digital world. Non DRM is not the answer. A one platform ebook (sticking to books for now) with DRM tracking and limited downloads may be.

  15. mi737373

    The idea of DRM is not or rather should not be to lock you into Kindle, it is to lock out content stealers. You, yourself said you “bought” a book and then went around the DRM management. So, transferring paid content from one platform to another is not stealing nor should it be discouraged. Being able to read stolen content is a very different matter. What really needs to happen is an industry consolidation (is happenning already) to one format with a good DRM built in to discourge if not stop stealing content.

  16. lynnishmail

    Amazon is willing to sell non-DRMed ebooks. It isn’t Amazon that’s locking consumers in — it’s the publishers who insist on DRM.

    I agree with you that DRM is trivially easy to circumvent, but let’s put the blame where it’s due here — the publishers, not Amazon.

    • That’s the Stockholm syndrome response.

      Amazon developed the DRM, Amazon applied the DRM, Amazon made the decision to not license their own DRM to others or take a license on Adobe’s DRM. AND Amazon has made DRM the default option. You have to request to have it removed. Amazon, acting singlehandedly, could make incomptible DRM, or even DRM altogether, history if they simply choose to do so.

      Publishers and authors, on the other hand, often do INSIST that their OWN books be provided without DRM and Amazon is forced to oblige, but they do not tell you which books are sold in this fashion. The only way for publishers to get rid of DRM would be through a conspiracy whereby they together to do something that independently acted against their own best interest, and the DOJ apparently does not like it when that happens.

      • Just Mohit

        Factual, but not entirely true! Amazon developed, and applied the DRM, because otherwise the publishing industry wouldn’t have let them sell ebooks at all. They had to develop a whole ecosystem, because of the industry’s reluctance to allow this market to develop. (case in point: various e-readers had been around for years before kindle, but the non-availability of books you wanted to read, coupled with high prices set by the industry ensured you’d never buy an e-reader). Amazon continues to make losses because of the industry’s reluctance to forgo margins on their products.

  17. pwb, Baen Books (sci fi publisher) is another publisher that doesn’t use DRM, and they distribute independently as well, through

  18. Actually there ARE publishers that don’t use DRM. For technical stuff, O’Reilly comes to mind. They deliver all their ebooks DRM-free and in multiple formats (EPUB, Kindle,…).

    This fact alone has made me into a loyal customer who’ll look there first. Maybe the others should start to consider following suit?

    • Jjmcgaffey

      Baen does the same, for science fiction – and yes, it’s made me more loyal to them – more pleased when I find a(nother) good author is with them.

  19. DRM is just a way for Amazon and Apple etc to get you buying their more expensive hardware. It’s the same as the early ipod/itunes experience, and in time i’m sure it will fade.

    I’m certainly in the ‘For’ group for DRM’s demise.

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  20. Agree with you on everything but this: “In about 15 minutes, anyone can unlock just about any e-book out there.”
    This is not true. It depends on the kind of ebooks you usually buy, and you shouldn’t forget not everyone is a geek. Most people aren’t able to remove any drm. Yes, hardcore readers will be very motivated to remove drm, but again: they’re just a few.

    • Jjmcgaffey

      I’m not sure what tools Zohar is using, but there are consumer-aimed tools to break DRM for most platforms. You don’t have to be a geek, just willing to spend some time Googling and downloading. And anyone who’s lost a device, or found themselves with the wrong device for a particular book, will be very motivated to break that DRM.

  21. After 20 years in the IT industry it takes me about a minute to break DRM (which is twice as long as the average teenager could do it in…I’m getting old). I actually just did one for the challenge though.