eBook DRM Turns Buying into Borrowing

I like the idea of ebooks. I like it because physical books take space – they’re heavy, they’re hard to move, and they fill the house with shelves. An ebook isn’t much good when you want to read the whole thing (although I read Free Culture that way), and it’s not very useful when you want to curl up in bed. But many of the books I keep around are ones which I have already read. I will probably never read them cover-to-cover again, but I may want to look something up. Ebooks are good for this. They’re an even better solution for rare books impossible or difficult to get any other way.

Role-playing game books are like this. For the games that interest me, the print runs are small – 2000 books might be typical – and the books that are printed disappear from stores quickly. Within a decade, such a book can double in value on eBay. So I was curious when DriveThruRPG.com opened up offering out-of-print game books for sale. Then I read about the DRM1 protections attached and my enthusiasm evaporated. Like Windows XP, these books are activated and tied to a computer. You can activate a book on up to 6 machines, but after that you have to plead your case with Adobe if you want to read a book anywhere else. I wrote the store a letter, hoping that someday the situation will improve:

I want to thank you for the free downloads. A couple of weeks ago I tried your service for the first time in order to take advantage of the free Fading Suns book. I enjoyed it so much I went out and bought the print version.

I probably won’t buy any more books though2. The problem – and I’m sure you’ve heard it before – is DRM. As I see it DRM means that any book I purchase simply won’t last. For a start, I’m likely to misplace the necessary passwords and access files. Worse, I have several computers, and I try to reinstall them once a year to keep Windows running smoothly. In order to maintain access to my own books, I would soon have to call Adobe every time I decide to reinstall.

When it comes down to it, this makes a DRM purchase more like a 2-3 year loan. And I don’t want to borrow these books. I want to buy them.

I wish you luck – I know even if you agreed with me your suppliers probably wouldn’t. But in the long run I think you and they will discover from experiences like mine that DRM-free books are a winner, both on their own terms and as drivers for paper book sales. In the mean time, thanks for the free loan.

If ebooks are to succeed, they must be lasting and useful to those who buy them. Books with DRM are not. As it is, I have only ever downloaded a handful of books, yet on two occasions I bought ones I never would have considered otherwise. Free Culture will be number three. Publishers should take this seriously: if it’s any good, the book itself is just about the best advertising you can get.


1 Digital Rights Management, which is to say sophisticated copy protection.

2 I should have said “I probably won’t actually buy any of your ebooks”.