DRM (digital rights management) is being used in just about every electronic format, including files used in electronic readers. My question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for writers, or does it really matter?

Since an author with a "traditional" publishing contract really has no control, this is really targetted more towards self-published authors who are also responsible for doing their own promotion and marketing.

I would like to know if not using DRM can result in your work being pirated or will it be a non-issue? If people do end up giving away copies, does DRM have the potential to lead to others buying the work out of guilt or possibly buying one of your other books? From a marketing perspective, does this make good business sense?

  • While this question may seem very similar to corresponding problems with movies and software, you should note in the pirate world books are cheaper. Unlike with games (appearing standalone or maybe in trilogies), movies (at best "a season"), music ("album" or "discography") there are .torrent files like "50,000 popular sci-fi and fantasy e-books" floating around. The result is the access is easier and the book is more likely to be pirated.
    – SF.
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 10:39
  • The question itself is a good one, but aspects of it were polling the community ("what do you think..." etc). This is really just an issue pf phrasing, and I've done a light edit to change these problematic aspects to ones that ask about advantages and disadvantages of DRM. Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 14:52

6 Answers 6


This is basically a question of marketing strategy.

The major pro of DRM is that it helps avoid pirating; the major con is that it limits accessibility and portability, and can annoy readers and users.

So it seems to me that the primary consideration should be: "Is pirating going to cost me so much, that I'm better off risking limiting and annoying users?".

For most independent, self-publishing authors, I think publicity is the biggest concern. If you're popular enough that pirated copies are really costing you, that probably means you're doing astoundingly well. Whereas finding readers is tough; you don't want to turn anybody off because of incompatible readers or annoying registration processes - they might easily skip your book entirely. So by default, I'd lean towards DRM free. But here are some additional considerations:

  • For publishers, DRM probably makes a lot more sense than it does for a single author. If your own personal titles are being pirated, you might not be losing a lot; if you've got hundreds of titles being pirated, that might be more of a dent.
  • You may have certain idealogical preferences - about pirating, or copyright, or current DRM practices - which you'd like to reflect by your choice of whether or not to use DRM.
  • You may want to use a publishing platform which does or does not utilize DRM; if you don't have strong preferences on DRM, this issue may be secondary to publishing on the best platform you can.
  • 5
    Good answer. On the topic of promotional uses for DRM free e-books it's worth bearing in mind that Cory Doctorow credits the success of some of his printed works to his policy of giving away free e-books of the same titles. Baen books have seen their sales of paperbacks rise since releasing a number of titles for free download.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 10:26
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    Just remember when going the DRM route - every DRM system can be broken. Just because you DRM your book, do NOT expect that you'll keep the pirates away from it - you'll slow them down a bit, but it only takes one bozo with too much time and some typing skill to make your DRM irrelevant. The best you can do is prevent casual piracy - the hard-core guys are still gonna take your stuff. Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 15:53
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    @michael - great point. Basically, if you're doing well enough for piracy to make much of a difference, then you're likely doing well enough for somebody to make the effort and bypass the DRM :-/ ...or maybe the other way around? A self-pubbed book is less likely to get pirated, so DRM might be enough to protect it from the less-intense piracy efforts?
    – Standback
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 16:06
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    @Standback - my advice is to only bother with DRM if the platform you want to publish on requires it. Otherwise, it's probably not worth the trouble it will cause your paying users. Commented Jul 28, 2011 at 1:38

DRM has been pretty harmful in my experience with creating and selling information products.

I used some fairly heavy handed DRM when I first started out. I realized this was a mistake after taking feedback from my customers and analyzing conversion rates. I ended up doing a lot of testing on implementations of DRM to determine what worked and what did not. The only type of DRM currently I maintain is a very light watermark when someone prints one of my products. I am not certain if that really counts as DRM, but it doesn't affect my sales.

I ended up with much higher return purchases as a direct result of removing DRM. This represents a higher level of trust and satisfaction based on customer feedback.

One additional thought. A little emotional blackmail in the eBook really helps convert people who do pirate it.

I hope my perspective is helpful. I am new to this site, so let me know if I screwed something up.

  • 4
    Good feedback, and welcome to the site! Commented Jul 28, 2011 at 2:04
  • Watermarking is NOT DRM. DRM specifically limits what one can DO with a piece of content. Watermarking doesn't effect the content's use, storage, execution (if applicable), or copying -- it only attempts to make an instance of the content (and any copies thereof) distinguishable from other instances of the content.
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Aug 19, 2011 at 16:29

If an ebook has DRM, it tends to be tied to a specific reader (actually, a specific physical reader-device). Since devices are, to some extent, short-lived and libraries are (or should arguable be able to be) long-lived, DRM directly harms the end consumer.

If the DRM is implemented with call-backs to a central server (not the case, as far as I am aware, with any ebook format, but quite common in computer games), the usefulness of the product is limited to the lifetime of the DRM-grant-access service. There's no real incentive for the original publisher to keep it running, once "the long tail" has been entered, so things protected by such a DRM are only useful as long as the publisher thinks they should be.

On the balance, I'd say that not including DRM is the right thing. Even with DRM, it's not hard for the ebook consumer to strip the DRM (I understand it is at the "install a piece of software, press a button" level of complexity, these days). By slapping DRM on the published content, you are annoying legitimate customers and not deterring people wanting to illegally copy the work(s).

  • And by "annoying", what is really being said is "lost sale" or "pirated copy", depending on the ethics of the individual user. For me, it's a lost sale -- I don't even want to read your locked stuff. For others it tends to be piracy. Both are heavy disadvantages since they work against your bottom line, and the latter in particular normalizes illegal behavior, making it harder to get people to pay for your work in the future. Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 0:00

It varies for each reader, but the majority(at least the vocal majority) say that if I pay for a book, I should own it fully. It should be mine to move to another e-reader, another PC/laptop, or anywhere else.

DRM normally doesn't allow this. With DRM, you never really own any book, you just rent it, and it can be removed any time, like it happened with Amazon. You can't give it to friends to read, give it over to charity shops or anything else you can do with paper books.

That said, if the big publishers start pushing DRM, there is little the public can do, except boycott e-books. Which is what is stopping many like me from buying an E-reader.

In your case, unless you self publish, your publisher will decide the issue for you. If you do self publish, keep in mind that many books that don't have DRM, still sell a lot. People are still honest enough to pay for them.

  • 4
    I don't buy anything with DRM. I once received a "gift token" which allowed me to download DRMed Windows Media file versions of songs. I downloaded them but never listened to them, the fact they kept trying to "license" themselves made them seem kind of broken. DRM is a great way to inconvenience customers and reward pirates (who rip out the DRM and distribute product x DRM free anyway).
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 8:31
  • 1
    Exactly @One Monkey. But I fear the industry will push DRM, till you will have the option to buy DRM music/books, or not buy anything at all. Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 9:02
  • 3
    Actually music has gone precisely the other way. It started out that everything had DRM on it now nowhere people actually buy music does. So far it's the odd media out as movies and games are usually laden with ever more bizarre layers of DRM and always have been. It doesn't trouble me as most of what I read is available for free anyway. I would never buy an unreasonably priced or DRMed eBook and there are plenty of alternatives.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 10:23

As Standback pointed out, it is mainly a marketing issue. Therefore I suggest that you test your market to find the answer.

If you write a series of books and offer the first one DRM-free, you can watch the numbers and comments of your customers. After that you can use DRM for the second one (you should explain on your blog/website that you use DRM now and why and add an address where to complain). Again watch the numbers and the reaction.

If the numbers are better without DRM, apologise to your readers and offer the second DRM-free. If the DRM version is a success keep testing.

It should be mentioned, that some of the DRM problems (like giving the book to friends) are addressed with existing DRM solutions. But I haven't used them myself, I only read about it. You should make crystal clear to your customers what is possible with your chosen DRM and what not.

  • 1
    Wouldn't it be better to learn from other people's experience? There are plenty of existing books that have been released with and/or without DRM; we should be able to figure out quite a bit from all those. Staking one's first few books on experiments in marketing sounds a little iffy to me :P
    – Standback
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 14:57
  • @Standback: They will tell you that it depends. Different audiences have different attitudes. Maybe books can help to figure out your customers. But it comes down to "knowing your audience" and probably no-one can tell about your audience, because they all, well, differ. And iffy is every endeavour. Try, fail and become better or let others win. Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 17:04

As I mentioned in my edited version of the original question, this is a question that was presented to one of the other writer's groups that I am a part of, and I wanted to see what folks here thought of the issue. I thought I would go ahead and share what came out of the other discussion.

As it has already been mentioned, if you are under contract to a "traditional" publisher, the writer doesn't have much input on this decision. The publisher is going to do what they believe to be in their own best interests, and that makes sound business sense.

However, for a self-published author focusing primarily on e-books, it is a completely different matter. What most of them have decided is that it does not make sense to use DRM for their books. The reason, as mentioned in other answers here, is that they are more concerned about getting readers, so if anyone wants to share the book, they are okay with that. They feel that the possible benefit of obtaining a new follower outweighs the potential lost revenue.

To further expand on that, a good number of them actually offer at least one book for free in the express hopes that people will enjoy it so much they will go back and buy something else the author has available. In a similar vein, many will offer a loss-leader, or a very low priced book, with the same intention. Bottom line, for them it is more important to obtain a following.

Interestingly enough, we found that a good number of more successful authors agreed with these same principles. They felt that the need to continue to increase a following coupled with the risk of alienating some people by using DRM meant that it made more sense for them to NOT use it.

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