Publishers and DRM: Is there a mediated approach?

 

Background:

You’d be hard pressed to find a more hot-button issue in the world of tech than piracy. Any discourse that leans one way or the other inevitably attracts controversy and a broad range of seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints. Alongside this, governments battle to protect domestic media with new legislation, whilst a cat and mouse game between uploaders and law enforcement plays out, desperate to stymie what they see as “lost sales” for major growth-sectors of the domestic economy.

Digital publishing is of course no exception to this. Exact figures on eBooks are harder to obtain than for other, more established forms of digital media like music and games, but perhaps unexpectedly, the figures we do have suggest extensive piracy across the developed and developing world. One study, conducted in 2010, put the figure at $3bn, but a cursory glance at some of the leading direct-download and peer-to-peer sites shows that books, particularly educational textbooks, are some of the most widely downloaded items.

The perceived (on the part of publishers themselves) inflexibility of existing copyright laws to deal with the intensely malleable nature of the internet, with its peer-to-peer and DDL (direct download) services has led to companies taking more proactive measures in protecting their own digital content outside of the aegis of lawsuits and political lobbying. One particularly controversial aspect of this is Digital Rights Management (DRM).

To pre-empt any questions on the part of the less tech-attuned: DRM is, eponymously, a form of technology designed to enforce copyright at a digital level. It manages a user’s “rights” to the content licensed to them by governing things like how many unique devices they can use to sign in with on a single account, what kinds of proprietary software they can use to render it and so on. In the realm of eBooks, DRM can take on a number of format-specific aspects, like watermarking.

How we approach piracy:

Functionality and ease of use has been at the heart of mobile devices ever since the iPhone first established the app-centric paradigm. Developmental considerations such as keeping the number of button/screen presses to a minimum are now factored into software engineering processes for mobile devices in a way they weren’t before. There’s an ease of delivery associated with apps is a boon in efforts to fight piracy as well. Previous examples of highly successful content delivery systems show that if a good and fast service is prioritized in markets where piracy is a huge issue – such as parts of Eastern Europe, the service provider can “outcompete” piracy simply by delivering a more user-friendly, intuitive and easy to use system. Our container application approach towards e-book delivery fits within this frictionless model of payment and delivery, pioneered by services like iTunes and Steam in other digital content arenas.

Naturally, we’re not suggesting ease of use and delivery be the only approaches. Publishers quite rightfully want to protect their own copyrights and intellectual properties – and whilst claims that a “pirated copy is always a lost sale” are somewhat hyperbolic, DRM is a necessity in that it discourages casual, non-technical piracy (in the image above, you’ll see that most peer reviewed studies tend to agree with this broad assessment). YUDU therefore approaches the issue of DRM by fusing together a customizable rights management system for the client (for example, variable tiers of ownership with correspondingly different rights) with a secure in-app encryption framework. The aim of this is to give freedom to the publisher to establish whatever range of pricing or “freemium” options they feel is appropriate, whilst guaranteeing their customers high-performance delivery and rendering of the content itself.

HTML5 standards, given their lack of access to incorporate native code have understandably been slow to catch up on this front, with the W3C only announcing a draft towards implementing it just over a month ago, with corresponding browser support for the implementations expected to take much longer. As it stands right now however, YUDU’s container apps enjoy complete HTTPS encryption and DRM functionality; their self-contained environment making any piracy in of itself significantly more difficult, quite simply because the runtime environment of the application itself isn’t within a framework like a browser. Further to this point, it’s essential to bear in mind that reliable DRM is much harder to achieve with stand-alone files, and therefore YUDU editions have a huge advantage over public file formats.

When people refer to intrusive and broken DRM systems, they’re usually talking about attempts to control mp3s, PDFs, epubs and so on. All of these are file formats that can be opened in a variety of third-party programs. The DRM system can’t rely on the third-party program to enforce its restrictions; while some player software might enforce DRM, the user can always go find a different player that doesn’t. With our digital books, the container app controls both the content and the player. You can’t take a YUDU edition and view it in WinAmp or iBooks or some other standard piece of software. Even better, our authentication is performed in the cloud, where a malicious user can’t tinker with it. This means that, unlike mp3s or epubs, we can have genuinely robust protection of the content.

DRM, and the wider issue of how to tap into mass markets in an age of rampant piracy is undoubtedly an issue that defies easy answers. But there are emerging norms – For one, the purely blunt force approach of the past has evidently not been particularly successful and must be coupled alongside systems that can outperform in the ecosystems that pirates themselves use in terms of form and function. This is at the heart of our business strategy regarding books and digitally published material as a whole. Delivering non-invasive DRM alongside a frictionless and rewarding experience for the paying customer, that doesn’t end up hamstringing them, either with sluggish performance or invasive protection measures.

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