Considerations for publishing without DRM

To DRM or not to DRM? When distributing content online, it's a question begging for an answer.

To quickly recap my last column: I'm considering what to recommend for a client that's interested in electronically publishing and selling its technical textbooks with some method such as digital rights management (DRM) to protect copyright and prevent illegal distribution.

I've also installed a Learning Management System (LMS) to deliver 10-year-old e-learning modules that we've converted to HTML, and we'd like to dynamically link to the textbooks. While the modules could do with a few graphic updates and less chrome, they all have synchronised voice-over and dynamic display of text and graphics, and the content is still relevant. So far in my search for an electronic publishing solution, I've concluded that at best, DRM is not particularly effective, and, at worst, is a barrier to easy use of the textbooks. Now for some other considerations.

Cost is a real factor. Assuming the textbooks may sell for around $100 each, you will need to sell a lot of books to recoup the cost of some publishing solutions, especially if you choose an expensive content server and the time taken to set everything up. There's also the problem that the DRM only has to fail or be cracked once on any device, and the books can be available as torrent files to anyone on the planet.

The content and its potential audience should also be considered. If the content was illegally copied and distributed, would my client lose a significant amount of sales?

Respectable businesses would still be purchasing the textbooks, and I assume enrolled students would have the textbooks' cost incorporated. If someone tried to resell that material or incorporate it into other online documents, they would be visible and subject to prosecution for breaching copyright, as most nations are signatories to copyright conventions. However, this can be a time-consuming, expensive, and litigious process.

There's also the question of whether to allow the downloading of textbooks to a device for local access, or present them only as web pages.

The download option means using some kind of DRM to prevent the file being easily copied, while the online option means the thief would have to copy all the web pages one at a time, and would leave an audit trail. HTML web pages also allows the inclusion of audio and video links if the textbooks are enhanced in the future.

The online option is essentially a subscription solution, and also has the benefits of allowing the textbooks to be updated periodically, so all subscribers have access to the latest versions. The same approach is used by online newspapers and journals to limit access to their content.

At the moment, I'm leaning towards suggesting publishing in HTML format and making the textbooks accessible online through the LMS, which would require enrolment and subscription payment. Most people these days are used to accessing reference texts online or through a paid subscription, and I believe the currency of the content is more important than having a static version on your device.

I'd think it unlikely that anyone would consider the task of copying all the web pages, compiling them, and illegally distributing them, and if the textbooks are continually updated, then it won't be the current version. An end-user licence agreement detailing the use of the online textbooks would of course also need to be accepted before access is granted.

The other consideration is displaying the content on PCs, laptops, tablets, and even smartphones. HTML is the one format readable on any of these devices without the need for proprietary reader software from Adobe, Apple, etc.

What I've suggested doesn't preclude other solutions in the future, and it avoids the need to select and pay for a publishing vendor or make the full textbooks available as a downloadable file at present. It would also make linking my client's existing e-learning modules to the textbooks considerably easier.

At the moment, there appears to be no foolproof method of securely distributing copyrighted content.

If you need to publish reference material and are concerned about illegal distribution and copyright violation, I'd recommend you hold onto your content and distribute it a few web pages at a time behind a subscription paywall.

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