Ebook DRM and license transfer

Selling books in the digital age – are digital rights exhausting?

In the physical (paper) world Copyright has gotten well established as to what the ground rules are when dealing with books.  You sell a book.  Well and good.  In the USA and the EU (under different but similar law) the purchaser can sell the book on to a third party when they have finished with it.

Now the clincher to the deal is that they cannot retain a copy and continue to use it.  The simple control is that the purchaser will not pay unless they get the one and only paper copy (first edition, hardbound, paperback, signed copy, with cover, and so on) at the bargain price.

So everybody is (more or less) happy.  The author gets paid on the first sale.  Their rights are consumed by the sale, allowing the purchaser free reign to sell on the physical copy.

But how does this work in the digital editions age?  When anyone can make a copy of anything?  Well we have a situation where there is one author and just as many publishers as you can imagine, but only one original sale to kick the whole process off.  So the author is prevented from deriving the economic benefits that should flow to them as a result of their labour because copying is not being prevented.

Enter DRM to redress the balance so that authors can gain their economic rights (why bother to write a book if you aren’t going to get paid?).  In fact, as was discussed when the idea of copyright was created, what is the implication if the only people that can publish are those who can afford to?  Exactly what literary landscape are we creating when only the rich (or those who are funded) get to make it big in print?

Tom Paine, arguably the creator of the argument (used in the formation of the United States Constitution) that men are born and continue free and equal in respect of their rights.  In 1791 it is estimated he sold around a million copies of the seminal work “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”  That funded his existence as a refugee (in France) from England where he would have been hanged having been found guilty in his absence of seditious libel for publishing the book.

Where would we be if Paine was not paid for his work, and Edmund Burke, doyen and publisher for the landed gentry, had been the only man to publish, claiming that only an inherited aristocracy could be fit to govern a country?

That is the historical background to why it is essential that authors are rewarded for their efforts [especially when they get up the nose of self-serving establishments].

Absent DRM technologies, authors have no practical means to protect their intellectual capital or achieve proper reward for their work.  In fact, the Internet offers, taken together with DRM, the ability for authors to bypass the traditional publisher, and reach directly to their market.  The cost of making copies, instead of being (perhaps second only to advertising) the major cost, is now non-existent.  But there is still no advantage if authors don’t get paid.  The idea of the EFF that people will pay what they think something is worth is, to put it mildly, a pipe dream.  People do not appreciate what they do not pay for.  Charge too little (permit uncontrolled copying) and the work has no worth because you don’t have to pay for it – QED.

Ebook DRM – negativity, expectations, positive ideas

Ebook DRM has had much negative press but it is really all about managing expectations.  If a user purchases an ebook for $1.99 rather than $7.99 then they should expect some differences in what they can do with it.  If I have saved myself $6 on my purchase then it is not unreasonable that I should not be able to resell that ebook or ‘lend’ it to others, or even install it on multiple devices which could be shared with others.  If I want to spend an extra $6 for unlimited use of a paperback (although only 1 person could have the book in their possession at any time), then that is an option I can take.

Ebook DRM in fact gives more flexibility to authors on price points.  An author for example could sell an ebook that expires say 90 days from when it was first opened at a much reduced price knowing that if a user wanted to read the ebook in the future they would have to purchase it again (just like if you threw a book away and decided years later to purchase it again).  So users could be given the option to pay less for limited use, or more for no expiry.  The same applies for multi-device use (after all each device is in fact effectively another book purchase as I could not have a physical book in more than one location at a time) – one price for a single device, another price for each additional device.  A base price could be provided for limited use with ‘add-ons’ available for purchase depending on the flexibility the user wants.

Another area where ebook DRM has been reviewed negatively is updates (either an Operating system, the application required to view the ebook, or the DRM mechanism itself – i.e. a plugin).  Users have frequently been caught out with Adobe or Amazon updates causing their libraries to disappear or unable to open their ebooks.  Locklizard use our own secure Viewer which is independent of the Operating System and other applications (we do not use plug-ins since they always fail when updates occur) so users can continue to view their ebooks regardless of any updates.  Our secure Viewers work on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android and allow users to view DRM protected ebooks offline (no Internet connection required) so reading a book on the beach is not a problem.  And if users don’t want to install any software then we have a browser based Web Viewer but that does require the user to be online.  If does however ensures users have instant access to any updates.

So far from being anathema to the digital era, DRM technologies are actually an essential support to retaining a consistent, vibrant marketplace where digital content has a value that can be protected.

Ebook DRM and license transfer

Transferring licenses from one user to another can be a hot potato.  There are DRM mechanisms available to ‘free up’ a license by revoking the existing license to enable it to be transferred to another device, but issues can arise if a user tells you they have had a disk failure, or they had to re-install their Operating System as there is no longer the original machine intact to verify license details against.  The publisher/author has to judge whether the information being received is genuine or not as it could mean that more than one license continues to be in use.

Locklizard has solved this problem with our PDF DRM USB solution that locks licenses to USB sticks/devices.  The owner of the USB stick is the owner of the license, and a duplicated USB stick will not function so users cannot copy the USB and give those copies to others.  Users can share their protected USB stick with others but only one user at a time can use the device (just like a physical book).  The USB device can be populated with thousands of ebooks but access to only specific ebooks enabled (according to what ebooks have been purchased), and additional ebooks can be added at any stage.  This solution is therefore a good way to sell a license as a physical product and is used by libraries to solve the issue of ownership, license transfer and use.

It appears that in the EU we will soon see if reselling digital licenses (digital book sellers are surely not selling them as goods?) is lawful or not, never mind how on earth digital licenses can be transferred and there may be rather more to blog about.