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Digital Rights Management (DRM) – Music, Films and now eBooks

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is where a user is restricted in what they can with with a certain media through technology.
Kindle padlocked by DRM

This means that if you have a certain file then you are restricted in where you can view / use that file. Supporters argue that these steps are needed to prevent copying, but on the other hand these have the effect of restricting users beyond reasonable use, prevent competition and penalise legitimate buyers over free downloaders.

I do believe in the requirement of copyright law in most circumstances to protect the artists/writer and to ensure that there are incentives for people to continue to create good content. I have also been a victim of having my own work copied without my permission. I am not however a supporter of DRM. I have purchased files with DRM restrictions where there is no or little viable alternative, but I believe that we are better with the existing copyright laws rather than using DRM. Here are a few examples of where DRM is used and why I don’t think that DRM works.

Audio (CDs, iTunes AAC, Windows WMA and MP3s)

DRM was popular for a period of time in music files, but has now pretty much been replaced by DRM free MP3 files (for downloads).

Since the creation of the first recordable audio tape drive it has been possible to copy music, but it was with the advent of digital CDs that it became possible to copy and share music without significant loss in quality. It was the ability to compress files using the MP3 file format that then made it possible to easily share files that created such a bad reputation for peer-to-peer file sharing. The music industry fought back by hitting legitimate users with DRM, which appeared to punish the legitimate users whilst doing little to stop file sharing.

DRM was applied to some “audio CDs”. I have put audio CDs in quotes as these were in fact not legitimate CDs at all, as they were deliberately not compliant with the Compact Disc standards. The discs were created as CD-ROM discs with intentional errors that prevented them being used in a computer, whilst most audio CD players played them. The first problem with this is that only most audio CDs would play the discs. This meant that those with an audio CD player that didn’t play them was left with a disc that wouldn’t play. It also meant that people that wanted to listen to music through their computer or on an MP3 player / iPod were prevented from doing so.

This left users in the position that they could either buy a CD that may or may not work with their CD player, or they could download an MP3 file for free which would work everywhere.

When the music industry caught on to the idea of selling music downloads then there were different file formats. If you purchased files in one format then they could not be read by a reader / player designed for the other format. For example Apple iPod users needed to buy AAC files from the iTunes store and were not able to play music bought in a different DRM format. Sony also had their own format that could only be played on Windows computers or their own hardware, and then there were WMA files which could only be played with Microsoft Media player or other suitable hardware. Once again the users were being punished for buying the music rather than downloading it for free without any of these restrictions.

The DRM did very little to protect against copying, so damaged the users experience whilst not achieving anything. For example it is fairly trivial to remove the iTunes DRM protection by writing the files to an audio CD (from the iTunes application) and then ripping the CD either back into iTunes or using another application.

Thankfully the situation has changed and you can now download MP3′s directly from Amazon.co.uk MP3 downloads and iTunes has stopped using DRM for music (although still uses a proprietary music format).

Video

DVDs include a form of DRM called the Content Scrambling System (CSS) which encrypts the DVD only allowing it to be decoded by approved players with the decryption keys. This also penalised legitimate users by preventing them from being played on a system without player available (eg. Linux). The encryption used was however cracked and the code to allow playing of DVDs is readily available.

There were also some DVDs created using a Copy Protection system which broke the DVD standards. These suffered from similar issues to the broken audio CDs as people were left with DVDs that they couldn’t play (I returned two DVDs to the shop as they could not be played on my DVD player at the time).

Blueray players also use a DRM protection, but it is more sophisticated in that it allows decryption keys to be revoked when they are known to be compromised, but more decryption keys are cracked as the previous ones are blocked.

eBooks

Electronic book readers are still quite a new thing, but once again there are multiple standards. This means that books with DRM purchased for the Amazon Kindle cannot be ready by the Sony eBook reader or vice-versa.

Unfortunately this means that it ties people into a specific reader and could mean there is a risk of a monopoly position that prevents other readers entering the market and makes it very difficult for other book stores to compete.

An issue for me is that there are no readers for Linux which is the operating system I use in addition to my hardware based Amazon Kindle. The Kindle software is available for Android, but I contacted Amazon and their response was that there were no announced plans for a Linux version. The Sony reader has a smaller list of supported platforms.

There are ways to defeat the DRM, including software that will convert from a DRM format to a none DRM file format, which means that once again it is the legitimate buyer that is being penalised.

Some publishers (particularly IT text books) are selling their own eBooks without DRM and in some cases in multiple different formats that can be downloaded. These are usually called DRM free, but may also be referred to as unlocked / unencrypted by some publishers. This does not appear to be the case for the large fiction publishers whose eBooks are tied to a certain reader or which refer you to retailers. You may want to look at going direct to the publisher for eBooks such as those listed below.

DRM Free Ebooks that I’ve read

General DRM-Free books (fiction and non-fiction)

DRM-free IT / technical ebooks

O’Reilly in particular provides the books to download in multiple formats DRM free.

DRM-Free Fiction ebooks

Also coming soon will be Harry Potter ebooks DRM free from , expected October 2011.

Note please check with the site that the particular book you are buying is really DRM-Free. Some of these may also include watermarking, embed personal information.

I hope that other publishers selling DRM free eBooks may help to encourage the mainstream retailers to also sell DRM free books in future.

I just want to be able to listen/watch/read the music/video/eBook I’ve bought in a way that is convenient to me. Whether that’s in the car, on an iPod, or on my Linux computer. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for, but unfortunately DRM is an obstacle to legitimate use of the things I’ve paid for.

Or completely free

Note that this does not link to any pirate / illegal websites. These are mainly out-of-print books that are out of copyright.

Other DRM Free Links

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