DRM-Free e-Books Are Now Available. Here’s Why That’s a Big Deal

Since e-books first emerged as a way for readers to consume content digitally, publishers and authors have required content aggregators to apply Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology to the e-books they sell to libraries to prevent the unauthorized use, copying, and redistribution of these materials. While this practice has given publishers and authors peace of mind that sales won’t be lost to piracy or other unauthorized sharing, it has placed undue restrictions on readers who rely on institutional access to e-books.

 

Since e-books first emerged as a way for readers to consume content digitally, publishers and authors have required content aggregators to apply Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology to the e-books they sell to libraries to prevent the unauthorized use, copying, and redistribution of these materials. While this practice has given publishers and authors peace of mind that sales won’t be lost to piracy or other unauthorized sharing, it has placed undue restrictions on readers who rely on institutional access to e-books.

For instance, DRM typically limits how much an e-book reader can print and how long they can check it out from the library. These limitations can make it difficult for students and academics to use e-books in their research. Some users might require more time with a particular resource, and yet this title might disappear from their device before they’ve had a chance to complete their work.

Even worse, DRM often limits the accessibility of materials for readers with disabilities. Downloaded content that is DRM-protected can only be opened with software that is compatible with the technology, such as Adobe DRM. This means that users can only read downloaded e-books in programs that support Adobe DRM, such as Adobe Digital Editions or Bluefire Reader.

When users have accessibility needs and use specific software to read e-books, these DRM-related limitations can have a big impact: forcing a user who reads with an assistive technology to use Adobe Digital Editions might mean they can’t read that book at all, if their screen reader or text-to-speech software isn’t compatible with Adobe Digital Editions. (Reading the title online is still possible, but for many users, this might not be a convenient option—and so they rely on the ability to download content.)

Although piracy is a serious issue for publishers, content aggregators have been arguing for years that offering DRM-free access to institutions would not add to the problem. “The malicious users aren’t logging into their library’s website to find DRM-free titles to pirate,” says Jon Elwell, director of content strategies for EBSCO. “They are just cracking the DRM.” Unfortunately, software that strips an e-book of its DRM protections is readily available online.

With this fact in mind, content aggregators have been working to convince publishers to let them sell DRM-free content to libraries—and these efforts are paying off. For example, EBSCO has been offering DRM-free content to libraries for more than a year, and the company now has more than 140,000 DRM-free titles available.

Benefits of DRM-Free Content

Why is this trend significant? With DRM-free e-books, library patrons have a much richer user experience. They are free to interact with the content just as they would with printed materials, yet with all of the benefits that a digital format enables—such as greater portability and accessibility.

“A DRM-free title is a digital book in its purest form,” Elwell observes. “If you want to chunk some sections up to share with a group you are working with, you can do it. If you want to download it so you can reference it later, you can do it. If you want to take notes and mark it up like a print book and have those notes to reference for the rest of your academic career, you can do it. You can even copy and paste sections to save yourself time. It allows the content to truly function as a digital title and to take advantage of everything that means.”

Not only does this remove barriers to research and scholarship, but DRM-free access also makes it easier for colleges and universities to offer e-books or e-book chapters for use by an entire class. “This marries well with course adoption,” Elwell notes.

A review of the usage data on DRM-free e-books suggests that users appreciate the flexibility this model provides. “We studied all of the content in the past year that was purchased and available in both 1-user and DRM-Free unlimited user models, and we found that DRM-Free content was getting significantly more use than the exact same titles in 1-user models,” Elwell says.

This increased usage benefits both libraries and publishers. “Usage is currency,” he explains. “If we know that we can enhance the value of an asset by ensuring that it’s used more frequently, that’s a good thing.”

Key Considerations

DRM-free content is relatively new at this scale, and publishers are still trying to figure out a pricing model that is sustainable for them. In turn, librarians are struggling to navigate this new landscape and come up with a purchasing model that makes the most sense for their institution.

While pricing for unlimited-user, DRM-free e-books is higher than the cost of traditional 1-user versions protected by DRM technology, DRM-free materials are also seeing more usage—and so the cost per use is ultimately lower. Even with all of the benefits afforded by DRM-free content, librarians might have to make tough choices about which titles to purchase in which formats.

Library purchasing agents should think carefully about what types of content they want to acquire DRM-free, based on how they expect readers will want to interact with these materials, Elwell advises. For example, a review of EBSCO data reveals that education and law are two subjects in particular where students prefer to download copies that remain on their devices, so they can continue to refer to these resources. If librarians are aware of this trend, they might consider buying DRM-free titles in these subject areas.

“Librarians can serve their patrons most effectively by investing strategically in DRM-free content and watching usage trends closely to make well-informed buying decisions,” Elwell concludes.

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