Digital reading exploded in the COVID-19 era, and ebooks, which were once called “disruptive,” are stealing the spotlight again. As readers or consumers, have you ever wondered if you really own the ebooks that you buy? Can you build a collection of them outside of the Amazon ecosystem?
Before we answer the million-dollar question, we must first understand how the digital book publishing industry works.
Let me start by saying I am knowledgeable of all the aspects of ebook development; I produced hundreds of ebooks when I was a publisher. I converted print books into ebooks and distributed them to ebookstores. Hence, I can shed some light on the matter.
When you buy an ebook on stores such as Amazon, Google Play Books, or Kobo, they usually come with Digital Rights Management (DRM), and sometimes watermarking. Some publishers opt out of using them, though, so not all ebooks have DRM protection. If you’re unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty details about ebooks and DRM, you can read the article I wrote not long ago. But if you’re pressed for time, let me break it down for you: DRM is simply the use of technology to protect copyrighted digital content such as music, movies, ebooks, etc.
Watermarking is a process where identifiable marks are encoded to an ebook copy to make it traceable to the person who bought it.
These two forms of protection have become the industry standards a decade ago. DRM works when a raw ebook file, such as ePub, is protected by a software to make it unreadable to other systems. Amazon employs DRM, if the publisher wants to use it on their ebooks, so that you can’t take your DRM-protected ebooks from them to another platform, basically making it a walled garden.
DRM also works by placing restrictions on the ebooks that you buy. While it gives you access to read the content, it doesn’t allow downloading of the raw copy. You do not own the ebook, as you would with a print book. You are only paying license to read the content.
In 2019, technology giant Microsoft finally shuttered its ebookstore, prompting a discussion on digital ownership. “Isn’t it strange? If you’re a Microsoft customer, you paid for those books. They’re yours. Except, I’m afraid, they’re not, and they never were,” wrote the BBC at the time.
Meanwhile, watermarking (sometimes mistakenly called soft or social DRM) uses watermarks and other less sophisticated forms of technology to mark an individual ebook file. Though you still own the ebook, you can’t distribute it around the web as your copy is identifiable. The marks may or may not be visible to the naked eye, so you should think twice in sharing it with friends. If your copy gets shared around, publishers would be able to know that it’s you who did the deed.
DRM and Ebook Piracy
Piracy has never been more prevalent in the digital age. Though the term is widely associated with music and movies, piracy extends to ebooks as well. In fact, U.S. publishers are losing $300 million a year because of ebook piracy. What some savvy readers do is use sophisticated tools to “crack” the DRM of ebook files and profit from them — which is illegal.
But while DRM is the only robust protection against unauthorized copying and distribution of copyrighted works, it sometimes backfires.
“DRM acts as an incentive to pirate content,” author Kate Sheehan wrote in her book The Ebook Revolution: A Primer for Librarians on the Front Lines in which she cited a study. Content protection provider Viaccess Ocra agrees as well: “One of the most-effective ways of dealing with piracy is by removing the incentive for the consumers to look for pirated content,” they wrote on their blog.
How to Own Your Ebooks Without Dabbling in Piracy
The easiest way to really own your ebooks is to buy ones that are DRM-free. Many independent publishers are now open to publishing ebooks sans the said technology. Indie platform Smashwords and, sometimes, Kobo also sell them. Classics in digital format produced by the Project Gutenberg are always DRM-free.
When you download ebooks from the aforementioned platforms, you get to keep the files even after you change or lose your devices. That’s true ownership in a digital sense.
Another option is…not buying ebooks at all, which might not be an option for some. But until we get an innovative form of security that satisfies both parties — the publisher and the reader — we’re stuck with the good old DRM.