Making eBooks Smarter

Making eBooks Smarter

The following blog was written for blogs.datalogics.com by Richard Nash, CEO, Cursor.

The primary frame for talking about digital rights management software (DRM) throughout its twenty-year life has been to outline what it prohibits. While in the past it made sense to emphasize that aspect of DRM, given that it was presented to businesses as a solution to piracy, I believe it would be helpful to offer a different frame: what does it enable?

New approaches to DRM, like Sony’s User Rights Management System (URMS), zero in on DRM as a tool for supporting existing and emerging business models: subscription, multi-user licenses, extremely short (24 hour) or extremely long (six month) lending licenses, or indeed open-ended licenses tied, say, to employment, or to a student’s academic calendar. This overcomes the tail-wagging-the-dog problem of earlier instances of DRM, where the business models were defined by what the software allowed, rather than the software enabling whatever business models a content owner might wish to test.

Moreover, it is not just the creativity of the content owner that DRM should support, but also the creativity of the user. Particularly in consumer publishing, but even also in scholarly and professional publishing, word-of-mouth has been the most significant driver of content sales throughout the history of the publishing industry. In this regard, not only have earlier iterations of hard DRM made controlled sharing of eBooks impossible, even newer flavors of DRM such as watermarking and social DRM are expressly designed to discourage sharing.

While it may seem counter-intuitive for DRM to support sharing, it is clear from marketing models around print books, including the distribution of free Advanced Reader Copies and the role of public and academic libraries in the book ecosystem, that a certain amount of sharing (whether institutional or peer-to-peer) benefits the publisher. Consequently, many DRM models are an active impediment to achieving an optimal degree of sharing—ironic, given that a useful attribute of digital files is that sharing is a very low cost, virtually free, activity.

What URMS does, is make files smarter. A publisher may allow a reader to share an eBook once, or three times, or ten times. The publisher may set the introduction, or the first one or two chapters to be unencrypted, while prohibiting unlimited sharing, so that the reader might share the file with hundreds of friends, all of whom can read the unencrypted sections, but have to purchase it to read the rest. A publisher in collaboration with a public library might allow unlimited borrowing for two weeks of a group of titles, say a popular author’s earlier books, in anticipation of an upcoming release of that author’s new book. A publisher might allow unlimited sharing provided the recipient of the shared eBook provide demographic information about themselves, obtaining opt-in consumer insights.

What this approach to DRM then enables is for the eBook to finally live up to its promise, to offer readers all the functionality of a print book and further functionalities still. Not a crippled file, but a file that offers reader and publisher alike more opportunity to gain more value, social and economic, from the content.

Richard Nash is CEO of Cursor, a strategic consulting services company that focuses on the interplay of culture and technology, helping established businesses and start-ups alike engage and thrive in our networked world.

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