Described simply, Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a lock placed on a file to ensure only the person who purchased it uses it. As applied to ebooks, DRM’s primary function is to secure the title against opening by anyone other than the individual whose device or software has the key to it. In most cases, DRM will also prevent copying and printing. From an author’s perspective, when it comes to ebook sales and Digital Rights Management, these characteristics have a number of pros. However, there can also be some pretty significant cons for the buyers of the book.

Let’s take a look at both.

DRM Solutions

There are four primary DRM systems out there. Amazon has a specific one it applies to its Kindle eBooks, which they control. Apple has one it applies to purchases from the iTunes store, Adobe’s ADEPT (Adobe Digital Editions Protection Technology) is employed by a wide variety of retailers. Among them are Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Overdrive. ADEPT uses Adobe Content Server 4 (ACS4) to manage the DRM of eBook files from a server. This gives it the flexibility to be applied to a variety of situations, including enabling self-publishing ebook sellers to license the software and apply it to purchases from their stores. Marlin DRM is the fourth system, which was co-developed by Intertrust, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony.

DRM’s Pros (More or Less)

When it performs as intended, DRM can be a useful tool for protecting an author’s copyright. By ensuring the digital files comprising the ebook are used in a read-only fashion, DRM makes it possible for the writer to get royalties from each person who reads their book, as the files cannot be passed from device to device without the key. Publishers, at their discretion, can decide how many devices the book can be viewed on to ensure pass-along rates remain low.

There’s just one problem.

DRM only serves to keep honest people honest. All of the primary codes have been broken by hackers, so people who are bound and determined to steal the book can do so. Basically, instead of keeping the unscrupulous out, DRM keeps honest people in. Thieves can pretty much have their way with DRM protected materials. With that said, while it doesn’t prevent all forms of piracy, it does mitigate the potential for it among the conscientious.

DRM’s Cons

Because hackers have cracked the codes, the only people inconvenienced by DRM are legitimate purchasers of a protected book. Let’s say you bought a DRM-protected book for your Kindle and you switch to Apple’s iPad. All of the books you bought for Kindle will need to be repurchased because their DRM solution is incompatible with iPad.

Further, DRM systems sometimes malfunction and won’t let the people who actually bought the book open it. This is an important consideration when you’re considering how to sell an ebook online. Frustrated customers can lead to demands for refunds, which can put a dent in your revenue stream.

Further, the protections afforded by DRM could actually undermine sales.

When a book can be shared, word of mouth has a better chance of flourishing, which translates into more copies sold. Thus, it’s very possible an author insisting upon DRM protection for their work could be shooting themselves in the foot.

Ultimately, it’s up to the individual writer to decide how they want to protect their work. In the case of ebook sales and Digital Rights Management, there are pros and cons. You’ll have to decide if the pros outweigh the cons for the type of books you sell.