17 A summary of general DRM Options for Trade Titles

Liam Borgstrom (ed.)

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the principle of controlling how, where and what rights may may used for a given digital publication. Often scathingly called Digital Restrictions Management by its opponents, it has been criticised for limiting the consumer experience of digital media, as well as complicating the purchasing process through registrations and platform lock-in[1].

DRM is applied in different ways, but can essentially boil down to two key elements. Firstly, the material must be purchased through a specific vendor with whom you are registered, secondly, the downloaded file itself may be protected by encryption which limits it to the specific customer.

You have already had a demonstration of the complexities of downloading an e-book through a local vendor using the Adobe Content Server (ACS). ACS has become the industry standard for e-books for vendors (with Amazon and Apple iBooks having their own systems) and is criticised more than others because of its useability and cost.

The cost of implementing DRM

Does the cost of the DRM-system justify its use?

Adobe ACS: Licensing the software costs about an initial $6’500 (R80’000), and then $1’500 (R18’500) per year afterwards. This is in addition to the $0.22 (R2.70) per book per sale[2]. This can be carried by the publisher directly, or by a distributor such as Ingram. Either way, the additional costs can trickle down to the overall book price (EBW 2012). Where it is increasingly being criticised is in the costs to independent books sellers, as to be a distributor of Adobe DRM content requires close to R80’000. This is the enterprise option, and does not limit the user to a particular store, but it can be a difficult route for smaller publishers and booksellers. However, a publisher can then follow what ever pricing option they want.

Apple iBookstore: Follows the Agency pricing model, in which books are sold at any price but at a 30% commission to the iBooks store.[3]

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing: Uses a combination of Agency and Wholesale models. Again, there are no upfront investment costs, but the cost per sale can be high, depending on what pricing model you decide to take.

  1. 35% royalty: You may set your book’s price at anything from $0.99 (R12.25) to $200.00 (R2’500), but you will only get 35% of the list price paid back to you. The list price here must match that available through any other channel. This is closer to the traditional sales system.
  2. 70% royalty: You may not set a price higher than $9.99 (R122), and this price must be at 20% less than the price of the physical edition of the book. This option is also only available in certain territories[4].  However, a higher royalty is received (on par with that offered by the iBooks Store).

All of these systems work on the concept of assigning a registered user a license to view the book. If the user has the actual file, that is merely to bypass needing to download the title. The book will still only work on the registered device of that person. In truth, this is no different from the copyright applied to print books, except, that the digital form allows for stronger enforcement.

An alternative system

Rather than formally managing rights, there is another approach to protecting an e-book that focuses more on the idea of digital ownership rather than rights management. Digital Watermarking (or as Biglione (2010) calls it ‘social DRM’) is the concept of attaching the ownership information to the digital file. This method can be seen as a type of ‘name and shame’ system, whereby any pirated copies will always bear the identifying details of the initial purchaser, making the risk of discovery greater. The main benefit of this approach is that while it can still use conventional DRM, it doesn’t have to. Rather, identifying information is placed throughout the book, in various locations, with the intention of making the book uniquely identifiable to the publisher or store.[5]

This will also have it’s own costs applied (for the water-marking service), but because their is no management involved (just a database of unique ids) the maintenance costs should be lower. For vendors, it remains to be seen whether the watermarking software will be carried by them or by the distributor, or by the publisher. So far, while this method is allegedly being used in some parts of the music industry, in e-book publishing the books that have advocated this the best so far are those available through Pottermore.


This is always a difficult argument to make. Publishers need security, but consumers need control and flexibility. To produce material without DRM has it’s benefits, as it removes the excess costs as well prevents any limitations in the reading or buying experience. But, as always there is the risk of piracy. No system is perfect, and piracy may simply be something we need to live to live with for the time being. Watermarking is a step towards taking advantage of P2P networks, but is not full-proof in itself. There is an argument will pay for material they really want if it is of a required quality and affordable, and therefore with piracy, publishers aren’t actually losing the real customers. But, free material is free material…

  1. The principle of limiting content to a specific platform/device. For instance, e-books sold by Amazon are intended to be read only on the Kindle. This process also applies in reverse as the Kindle does not support ePub, therefore making itself un-useable by other vendors.
  2. Currency conversions are approximations based on current exchange rates 
  3. Import to be aware of, but at the moment only public domain titles and Apple Showcases are available through iBooks in South Africa
  4. South Africa is still not one of those
  5. Please read the reading by Hoffelder (2012).


Publishing in the Digital Environment Copyright © 2013 by Liam Borgstrom (ed.). All Rights Reserved.