Digital Rights Management Basics

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is another phrase for ebook file security and is really an effort to try to prevent electronic piracy by limiting who can open particular files and on what devices. DRM is an effort on top of the actual file format in use. Unfortunately, some aspects of various DRM’s can make it difficult for a consumer to legitimately make use of their purchased ebooks in ways they want to when they want to. Part of this is due to the fact that the ereader landscape is rapidly changing and part is due to the fact there is no real standard that can be agreed upon.

There are some retailers that offer DRM-free ebooks but not all publishers will support it and not all retailers will offer DRM-free books. It’s well known that DRM content in ebooks, just as in music, is not at all popular with customers simply because it creates a ton of pain for legitimate customers in an effort to prevent ebook piracy.

DRM typically relies on the registration of a device or devices with some central authority in order to be considered a “legitimate” device for a particular account. When you open a DRM book, the device tries to check with its central authority to verify the device’s authenticity. While this sounds like no big deal, it does have some drawbacks, particularly for dedicated ereader devices and DRMs. One significant drawback is that not all devices support all DRMs. Another is that most DRMs only allow a certain number of devices to be registered and between upgrading your dedicated ereader hardware and your computers or laptops, the number may be far from adequate and trying to un-register a device can be a lot more confusing than you think — if you can even figure out how.

If you are set on buying a particular retailer or publisher’s books, be sure to check what formats those books are offered in and your own ereader (or the ones you are considering buying) to be sure you can read a format that content is offered in.

The most common DRMs currently are:

  • Adobe Digital Editions DRM – This is a DRM that uses Adobe’s content server to authenticate the device and allow or disallow access. If you are reading on your computer or laptop, you require a special reader and copying legitimate content between two registered systems is difficult because Adobe Digital Editions offers two types of authentication and they are not completely compatible with each other. Adobe Digital Editions allows up to six computers and six devices to be registered. Un-registering devices or computers is not supported – if you exceed these limits, you must contact Adobe Customer Support to try to get your limit increased.
  • Amazon DRM – Amazon has their own DRM scheme and it allows up to six Kindles or Kindle-compatible devices (like the Kindle software on an iPhone or computer) to be registered to the same account. The ebook files are tied to the Amazon account. Unlike the Adobe Digital Editions, it’s relatively easy to register and unregister Kindles and Kindle-compatible devices via Amazon website.
  • Barnes & Noble DRM – Barnes & Noble also has their own DRM for their Nook books in EPUB format. This DRM allows you to read books on your registered Nook reader as well as to unlock books using the credit card you have on file with Barnes & Noble. You can also “lend” a book to someone for up to 14 days but you cannot access it while it’s on loan. You can read B&N DRM content using the B&N reader on your computer or other devices as long as you unlock the content with your credit card.
  • Fairplay DRM – This DRM has been announced to be the one used for EPUB books by the iBook application for the iPad. It was originally developed for the iTunes music store (which has since dropped DRM from all music content though they still use it for movies and video content). There are not a lot of details known yet on how this will work for ebooks, though.


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