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Is Social DRM the Great Digital Compromise?

I find Social DRM (the act of embedding identifying information in a digital file)

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There are two certainties in digital book world. First, DRM is a major stumbling block for widespread ebook adoption. Second, piracy exists. Many content owners (publishers and authors) believe that DRM is necessary to prevent piracy and protect their ownership rights. The belief that DRM prevents piracy is a fallacy. There is no published report, no scientific findings, and no anecdotal evidence that suggest DRM reduces piracy. Really, the only thing that DRM does is provide the content owner with a false sense of security about the non piratable nature of their digital products.

In fact, the only evidence we have, either from studies or anectodal evidence, is that DRM encourages piracy whereas digital products with no DRM have no increase in piracy. Random House proved this with its audiobook experiment last year. Random House wanted to sell its audiobooks through eMusic. eMusic, however, sold only MP3s and this format does not allow for any DRM. RandomHouse “watermarked all of the eMusic files and then hired a piracy watchdog service to monitor and report back … if any of [the] titles appeared on the major filesharing networks.”

The purpose “Because piracy is already a fact of life in the digital world, what we were interested in finding out was not whether piracy exists, but rather whether there is any correlation between DRM-free distribution and an increased incidence of piracy.”

The results: we have not yet found a single instance of the eMusic watermarked titles being distributed illegally. We did find many copies of audiobook files available for free, but they did not originate from the eMusic test, but rather from copied CDs or from files whose DRM was hacked. It is worth noting that these results are entirely consistent with what the music industry has found in the last six months. After conducting their own tests with Amazon, and others, the major labels have reached the conclusion that MP3 distribution does not in itself lead to increased piracy, they are now moving their entire catalogs to this approach.

Indeed, every major publisher of music has allowed its music to be sold without DRM. So what’s different between books and music? Why have the major music labels been convinced that DRM is a detriment to digital distribution? I don’t have an answer for this.

Enter Social DRM

I’ve never really thought about the concept of Social DRM until recently although David Rothman from seems to be a proponent of it. It is disliked by some because any DRM is unacceptable or because social drm necessarily involves the embedding of some personal information. Other’s believe that Social DRM is only effective if the entirety of the reading/buying community is ethical, which it is not (else piracy probably would not exist).

Social DRM is essentially embedding some kind of marker in the file itself so that it can be traced back to the original consumer. Itunes does this with its DRM free music. Within each file is the email address and account information for the purchaser of the song.

It’s true that this type of DRM can be stripped just like the existing DRM can be stripped. However, it allows the sharing of a book amongst close and trusted friends. The lack of proprietary DRM allows people to have device freedom. (portability). It reduces the cost of epublishing (creating multiple formats is one of the largest epublishing costs, along with the DRM costs).

Let me repeat that no DRM is proof against hackability and that is true for social DRM. It is possible, though, that a social DRM can serve to remind users that mass sharing is dangerous and provide a balance between the need for security (no matter how illusory) for a content owner and the freedom of ownership and portability for the consumer.

I believe that NO DRM is the best way to go, but I’m open to a social DRM. What do you think?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Kat
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 05:36:10

    I’m not totally against social DRM, but it’ll depend on the type of information to be embedded in the file. It has to be something that can’t be used to harm me if it were stolen/hacked. Essentially, though, I think current DRM measures involve an old way of thinking and they’re eventually going to disappear and access control will focus more on provision rather than restriction.

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 06:37:39

    Ever since I saw an unpublished book on a pirate site, I’ve done my own form of DRM when I’ve sent books out pre-publication (which I only do to beta readers these days, so it’s more or less had its day). I know other authors do it, too, and no, I’m not telling.

    I used to think DRM worked until two things happened to me – as a reader, I got an ebookwise, which has a proprietory format. Books HAVE to be converted to the format, or you have to buy the book in that format, which means I couldn’t also put them on my Ipaq, and backing them up became a nightmare.
    Second, as a writer, I began to trawl the pirate sites looking for illegal copies of my books. I found as many books which I knew were only out in print, or had restrictive DRM on them as I did ebooks. DRM is easily stripped out by these people.

    Instead, I’d like to see incentives you can only get by buying the book legitimately. We can’t rely on the goodness of strangers. The vast majority of people are honest, understand the issues and buy their books from the legitimate sources, but the odd one or two will always steal. Many publishers create incentives to some extent. Discounts, the “buy ten books get one free” offers and so on. Clubs that encourage loyalty. The Fictionwise micropay scheme, that kind of thing. I’d like to see more done in this area. As yet, I’m not sure, but maybe something like a draw for big prizes, like a trip to Romantic Times, or something like that?

  3. kirsten saell
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 13:51:50

    I would actually like to see social DRM, although I think embedding a simple numerical serial number in each file would allow the copies to be traced back to the account they originated from without putting consumers’ personal info at risk.

    It may be that producers/retailers feel having your credit card number embedded would act as a deterrent to sharing–and they’d be right, heh. But the possibility of my laptop or reader being stolen–along with multiple ebook files containing my credit card number–is still real enough that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. I’m leery enough about the fact that the Sony ebookstore keeps my credit card number on file. I’d rather enter the number each time I purchase–the fewer places that info is stored the better, as far as I’m concerned.

    I’m not as optimistic as Lynne–although I believe most people would not do something they see as harmful to authors, I don’t think the vast majority of people understand the issues. And I know many who would never consider taking money out of an author’s pocket feel less guilty if they believe it’s only some corporate bottom line they’re damaging.

    There will always be a segment of consumers that will refuse to be convinced they’re harming anyone with illegal downloads–or who believe they have every right to behave in ways they know to be harmful–but responsible social DRM paired with an effort to educate readers is probably a good start in swaying those who can be swayed.

  4. Sayuri
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 14:08:09

    For me, I think the biggest issue in e-publishing is the lack of ONE proprietary format. I could care less if my e-books had DRM on them, IF I could take them from device to device. At the moment that’s not possible.

    I (until recently) had a Booken Cybook. Mobipocket is it’s prefered format. I have bought well over $500 worth of books for this reader. Now, all these books are completely useless to me, because I have now purchased a Sony e-reader. Sony e-reader’s like .epub and .pdf not .mobi. That’s $500 down the toilet. Why should I pay again and again for the same item, in a different file format? It’s crazy.

    And that’s what, I think, is stopping a huge amount of potential readers converting to e-books. And is also contributing to piracy. I mean, why pay for something that you can only use on certain devices, when you can get something for free and take it with you.

    At the moment, piracy offers consumers something that the e-pubs aren’t. Compatibilty and portability. Because there is no DRM on the files you can convert them to any filetype you need for the reader you have.

    Give people ONE format and the ‘need’ to remove DRM goes away. As long as I can use my e-book on any device, I’m happy for DRM to stay.

  5. Jamie Harrington
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 14:10:52

    This is a tough one… it’s something that the music industry has been dealing with for a while, and the television and movie industry has recently had come into play. I think the best way to handle it is to just go no DRM. Social DRM won’t prevent the information from being passed around if regular DRM doesn’t… so that is silly to add that extra step in there. People will still buy the books, and as readers, etc. become more prevalent then people will buy the ebooks on their own, the same as people started downloading and paying for music more often when that became the standard format for it. I just think it is more about waiting and letting the industry find it’s path than it is about being worried about who is pirating what.

  6. kirsten saell
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 14:23:27

    Social DRM won't prevent the information from being passed around if regular DRM doesn't…

    I think the watermarking could be useful in tracking down people who abuse their ebooks. I would have no problem at all if mulitple pirated ebooks were tracked back to one account, and after a few warnings that account was suspended.

    And the advantages of social DRM are largely advantages for the consumer. It allows limited sharing between close, trusted friends and portability between devices.

  7. Kat
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 15:50:41

    @Sayuri: I think an open standard would be even better. I don’t necessarily think portability is the main issue for most potential ebook converts, but the actual cost of buying an ebook reader and the fact that pricing doesn’t reflect the limited ways you’re legally allowed to use ebooks.

    @kirsten saell:

    It may be that producers/retailers feel having your credit card number embedded would act as a deterrent to sharing

    I’m pretty sure the credit card companies wouldn’t allow this. The current security standard for credit cards is pretty strict as it is.

    Also, I tend to think that people who regularly share files on torrent sites will find a way to strip incriminating evidence first, if they can. But for the casual sharer, yeah, it would probably be a deterrent.

  8. Shannon C.
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 16:12:48


    And that's what, I think, is stopping a huge amount of potential readers converting to e-books. And is also contributing to piracy. I mean, why pay for something that you can only use on certain devices, when you can get something for free and take it with you.

    Word. The other problem with DRM is that it plays havoc for those of us who have the biggest potential to be ebook customers–blind people. As it stands, I would love to be able to go to fictionwise on a book’s release date, buy the books I want, and read them without having to figure out some workaround. I’m a legitimate customer. Is my money not good enough to get the same kind of content that sighted customers can have right away? Because there’s nothing worse than realizing that I’ve just spent, say, $17 on a fascinating-sounding book that I can’t read. As it is, as a blind person, if I want to be an honest consumer, which of course I do, my choices are limited to waiting for someone to decide to provide the books in digital format on the few places where it’s legally OK to do so, or piracy.

    I’d be OK with social DRM, provided that it wasn’t my credit card information being stored, but I really do hope that eventually it’ll go away. And I also like Lynne Connolly’s suggestion of adding extra incentives. I know I buy my music pretty much exclusively from places like emusic these days because it is much more cost-effective to do so, and I would join the Fictionwise Buy-wise club if I could, you know, have access to everything they offered without restrictions.

  9. Shannon C.
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 16:20:11

    Er… I didn’t mean to imply that piracy = being an honest consumer. Silly brain going faster than my fingers.

  10. kirsten saell
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 16:46:27

    As far as format goes, I honestly don’t understand why all pubs don’t do what Samhain does. When I switched from reading on my laptop to my Sony, I just went to my virtual bookshelf and redownloaded the books I already owned in Sony pdf. No charge, no having to email to ask for a different format, no questions asked.

    Or do what some other pubs do–offer all available formats in one zipped file when you purchase a book.

    But to be honest, I’m not sure adoption of ebooks is hindered by the lack of one proprietary format. Most people I’ve talked to who are vaguely aware of ebooks wouldn’t know a proprietary format if it hit them in the nose. They’re still under the erroneous impression that an ebook is something you read online, or that you have to read it on your computer. Or that you need a Kindle to read them, since Kindle is the only reader they’ve ever heard of…

  11. Darlynne
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 17:06:16

    I’m one of those readers who is completely hamstrung by the number of formats and the, apparent, inability to read all on any given device. Until I have some confidence that any ebooks I purchase will always be available to me, no matter the device, I’m not going to be an ebook customer. It’s tough enough upgrading my computer and/or software when a previous version is no longer supported (thank you, Microsoft). I would be incensed if my books could not be read for a similar reason.

    As for social DRM, those friends to whom I’d (hypothetically) lend my ebook had better be very trustworthy. Any control I have is gone the second that file leaves my hands.

  12. Kat
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 17:13:55

    I think the lack of an accepted open standard (i.e. NON-proprietary format) hinders adoption indirectly because it’s a barrier to competition. Basically, not having an open standard increases the cost of production—both of the hardware as well as on the side of the publishers—because of the licensing and infrastructure costs. Then again, this is pretty typical of a growing market, and eventually it should converge into some kind of standard, proprietary or not. Most people will tend to wait until convergence is close before spending their money.

  13. Mary Winter
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 19:14:16

    One of the things I did at Pink Petal Books is to make sure that ALL formats are available in one zip file. That way, the consumer/reader can read the book when and where s/he wants to. :)

    That said on Social DRM. If it were a non-identifying number outside of the company (so an internal customer # that isn’t used for logon or access information) it might be possible. But on its own, I doubt it would do much deterring. What would be even better; however, I think, would be to have so many “shares” of the same file. If you go say above 7 or 8, which I think is somewhere around the average time a paperback is read, then you could potentially incur charges. And I’m talking about sharing the file with someone who isn’t you. So as the consumer, you can do what you want with the file, read it on various devices, etc. But you can’t email it to 50 of your closest friends. So, say someone who posts the book on a file sharing site, and it can be tracked back to that site and that person, gets a bill in the mail for the 1500 books people download from the site. Now THAT would deter piracy. Or make people mad. *grins* Either way… I’m not sure this technology is feasible (I’m sure it’s in place) to publishers, and it would have have to be weighed against PR. But if we do social DRM, then I think it could be taken a step further. Thus, someone who shares a book with a friend or two isn’t harmed, but someone who posts it to a site where it’s downloaded 100, 500, even 1000 times, gets penalized.

    I’m not talking about suing. Just a simple transaction…. you share the book with 1000 of your closest friends, you get billed. You don’t pay it…well the same thing happens with any bill you don’t pay. No need to sue or involve the courts.

    I suspect this view won’t make me popular, but I am sick and tired of the guys I work with downloading files because they CAN. I don’t think Social DRM will deter that at all. Hitting them in their wallet might.

  14. Kat
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 19:33:08

    @Mary Winter: I think the issue of non-repudiation would come into play here. I also don’t think the online community will look favourably upon organisations being able to randomly bill people for things they may or may not have done. (For example, what if you shared digital books with someone who then decides to put them all up on a filesharing site to get back at you for some reason?) And finally, putting a creepy element of publishers monitoring how we use ebooks isn’t going to be the best way to sell more ebooks.

  15. Mary Winter
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 19:45:47

    @Kat – Very true. And I’m not saying that it HAS to be done. But I think people would also be far more discerning with whom they shared ebooks with if they thought that it could all be traced back to them. We make parents pay for damages caused my minors in certain circumstances. It would be horrible to enforce and verify that the individual actually caused the piracy. And, as I mentioned the whole PR angle would need to be reviewed, too.

    I know the RIAA burned a lot of bridges when they started suing people.

    So I just keep repeating to myself is that karma is a beautiful thing. Because the truth of the matter is, DRM, Social DRM, or No-DRM, people are going to always share files, and some of them, will escalate that into piracy.

  16. Bonnie
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 20:11:23

    I hate to sound like a total dunce, but could someone tell me or point me in the right direction to find out the evils of DMR? In idiot speak?

    I honestly don’t get it.

    I have a Kindle and don’t worry about these problems. I think….

  17. Jane
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 20:20:05

    @Bonnie DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. If you should ever decide that the Kindle is not for you and wanted to buy some other device, say 5 years from now, you would have to repurchase your ebooks to read them on another device. Further, should Amazon up and decide the Kindle is a total losing proposition for them and discontinue selling and supporting Kindle books, you would be out of luck if you did not have a backup of your files (Wal-mart did this with music and Major League Baseball did this with playoff videos).

  18. spyscribbler
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 21:03:25

    What a fantastic compromise! I think it’s a wonderful idea.

    Any DRM can be stripped. But at least this way, it doesn’t punish the honest consumer who PAID FOR THE DARN THING IN THE FIRST PLACE AND CAN’T READ IT!

    Er… sorry. I’m still bitter about the book that came to me with DRM and thus wouldn’t let me put it on my Kindle. I don’t read on the computer screen. No, thank you. I paid for it. I want to read it. Is that REALLY too much to ask?

  19. whey
    Feb 08, 2009 @ 23:24:16

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s too late for this compromise. Too much bad blood — everyone can suck it. Yay GD 2.0.

  20. MaryK
    Feb 09, 2009 @ 12:32:46


    Further, should Amazon up and decide the Kindle is a total losing proposition for them and discontinue selling and supporting Kindle books, you would be out of luck if you did not have a backup of your files

    Hasn’t Amazon already discontinued an ebook program? I seem to remember complaints about PDFs maybe?

    Could you still use the files if Kindle support was eliminated? I thought the device registration that goes along with DRM would prevent that.

    I don’t trust Amazon to do anything but ship books to me, and, in my mind at least, the Kindle is too tied to Amazon. I’m waiting for a really good Sony deal.

  21. Kat
    Feb 09, 2009 @ 19:19:44

    Darlynne brought up a great point in comment #11 when she mentioned having to trust her friends when she lent books: social DRM assumes that you have absolute secure control over where you store your ebooks.

    Imagine this scenario: a family member or room-mate wants to join a file-sharing community (it’s illegal, but never mind, they’re doing it) and needs to up their upload ratio to get status. They need some unique files that are new to the community…. so they find and upload the ebooks you have in your personal folder. So much for social DRM.

    Even though operating systems make it easy to make personal files secure on a per-user basis, most family computers (or even personal computers owned by people who let their families use them) are wide open, security-wise. How many times has someone let their kid, spouse, or room-mate use a personal account that wasn’t theirs “just for a minute”?

  22. Bonnie
    Feb 09, 2009 @ 19:33:39

    @Bonnie DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. If you should ever decide that the Kindle is not for you and wanted to buy some other device, say 5 years from now, you would have to repurchase your ebooks to read them on another device. Further, should Amazon up and decide the Kindle is a total losing proposition for them and discontinue selling and supporting Kindle books, you would be out of luck if you did not have a backup of your files (Wal-mart did this with music and Major League Baseball did this with playoff videos).

    Thanks for this, Jane.

  23. SAO
    Feb 10, 2009 @ 07:17:08

    All DRM does is prevent legitimate purchasers from using their products. It does nothing to deter piracy.

    I live overseas. I have DVDs from several regions. All DVDs are region encoded and the DRM prevents you from playing a US encoded DVD in England and vice versa. So, I (and just about every other expatriate in the same situation) needed to figure out how to get around the DRM to play my legitimately bought DVDs in the “wrong” country.

    It’s EASY. I’m not tech savvy. I Googled and discovered where to download software that will allow me to copy DRM protected DVDs and strip out the region encoded (and any other Digital Rights Managed feature I don’t like). I found out how to hack my DVD player to play all regions. This stuff is easy to find. There are sites that review the software. This is not black market, shady, sure-to-be-virus-infested. You don’t need to be a hacker. You need Google, internet access, and a computer.

    Stripping out DRM is easy, easy, easy. Please don’t pretend this is protecting any author against piracy.

  24. Keishon
    Feb 10, 2009 @ 09:33:41

    Like someone else said, they can suck it. Don’t care for DRM in any form.

  25. Betsy C.
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 04:23:58

    I’m another legally blind reader weighing in. :)

    Benetech’s ebook website for people with disabilities,, has been using social DRM for the past seven years, and it’s worked for them.

  26. Gwen
    Mar 04, 2009 @ 18:21:45

    Shannon has added a very good post to TGTBTU about the most recent Author’s Guild DRM debacle:

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