The Danger of eBook Digital Rights Management

The Danger of eBook Digital Rights Management

The most common complaints surrounding ebooks are probably digital rights management related. Either books aren’t cross-platform compatible, or there are arguments of fragmentation, and the biggest boogeyman of all fears that someone could flip a switch and deauthorize an entire library. That’s precisely what happened to one unlucky Teleread contributor.

Douglas Cootey explains:

My iPhone wouldn’t let me authorize any new apps that utilized Adobe’s DRM. I had run out of the allotted authorizations. By March of this year, I began to contact Adobe to fix the situation, but each web case was “withdrawn”, which is to say “dismissed without solving”. I called tech support on multiple numbers and each time I was told that they only supported Adobe Digital Editions via the web. Some helped me open a case for Tier2 support, yet each of those web cases was withdrawn.

By the end of May, my iPad developed a video issue and I returned it to the Applestore for a new unit. Thanks to Apple’s top notch iTunes syncing, I was restored and reading eBooks in no time without a hitch. Then Overdrive, an app that lets one read eBooks from the local library, hung at launch. No amount of rebooting or force quitting could fix it. I had to delete the app and reinstall it.

As I feared, this caused problems when reauthorizing with Adobe. I got the dreaded “Adobe Activation Request Error 2004”. I was locked out of my library book. I started calling Adobe again, getting the usual runaround. The one time I thought I finally got help was when a tech said he would happily reset my account, but just reset my password instead. Today I got another “Withdrawn”. Adobe would not reset my activation account for love nor money.

It’s every ebook reader’s fear…and it seems far more common with Adobe than with any other DRM system. Adobe’s DRM is both a blessing and a curse in the ebook world. On the upside, it’s the closest there is to a “universal” system. Kobo, Sony, Overdrive Library and several smaller stores all use it, plus the NOOK, Kobo and several other ebook readers all support it. The downside, though, is that support is a hot potato. Authorize too many devices, and the store you bought your book from can’t help you. You’ll have to head to Adobe, where you need to apply for web support and hope they reset you. And this isn’t an unusual issue. It’s come up multiple times, and I’ve seen it on Mobile Read as well as on Adobe’s own support forums.

Meanwhile, I tried googling for similar issues with iBooks, Kindle, and NOOK. The biggest one with Amazon’s Kindle is an elusive restriction on how many times you can download a book simultaneously to multiple devices. Gear Diary’s own Dan Cohen broke this story a few years ago, and it’s unclear since then what, if any, changes were made to the DRM system. However, if you have an issue with Amazon’s DRM, there’s always the option of picking up the phone and calling Amazon’s customer service. At the very least they can determine if you’ve tripped over the downloads issue, and they haven’t built up to be the biggest bookstore in the world by having poor customer service. Any DRM issue you have with Amazon will, at the very least, be diagnosed, and probably resolved. It’s also important to note that I couldn’t find any references to the downloads issue past 2009, so it’s likely they’ve been able to open up the number of simultaneous devices to allow people to keep books handy on a smartphone, tablet, and Kindle simultaneously without a problem.

Then there’s B&N’s NOOK DRM. I couldn’t dig up much on this, as most of the complaints were centered around issues with Adobe Digital Editions, though it seems there were a few minor issues with the credit card that was used for purchase not properly authorizing books. However, the solution there was pretty simple, just like Amazon’s: Pick up the phone, call customer service, and speak to an actual person to get it resolved. Granted, Doug ranted about when having to call an 800 number seemed like overkill, but if there’s a serious problem it’s good to know you can get it resolved in real-time by speaking to a person, instead of Adobe’s method of “Fill out this web form and we’ll get back to you. Possibly long after you just gave up on reading your ebook at all.”

iBooks is still very much the new kid on the block, but from what I’ve read it has the same restrictions as other iTunes content; unlimited iOS downloads, 5 authorized iTunes computers. Given the small relative marketshare and the limitation to just Apple’s iOS devices, it’s not surprising that there haven’t been any issues. In the event that you do have a problem with iBooks, my guess is that the theme is the same as B&N and Amazon; call or hit up an Apple store, and speak to a real person to get it resolved.

So what do you do as a consumer? Well, if you want to read mainstream ebooks, you don’t have a choice. Pick your poison; Adobe Digital Editions, Amazon Kindle, B&N NOOK, or iBooks. If you’re reasonably tech-savvy and willing to deal with a decentralized system, Adobe Digital Editions offers a fair amount of flexibility (since you have multiple stores from which to shop). On the other hand, as illustrated by repeated experiences, Adobe isn’t really up to par on the customer service front. From a selection and customer service standpoint, your safer bet is probably Amazon or B&N. Sadly, there is no perfect, foolproof system, one that will give you the books you want and trust that we’re not all buying books so we can immediately rush out to upload them to BitTorrent.

It’s frustrating, and right now I can’t see anyone breaking ranks and trying to shake out a DRM-free store. Amazon, B&N, and Apple all have major incentive to remain proprietary, so as to lock in and keep more consumers. And stores that might benefit from the goodwill of being DRM-free (like Kobo) don’t have the leverage to negotiate with publishers. Luckily, even in the case of Adobe’s DRM, hiccups and glitches are the exceptions and not the norm…but it’s frustrating to hear anyone have issues with ebooks! Have you encountered any limitations or issues with ebook DRM? Has it interrupted your ability to manage your library or read your books? Share your story in the comments!

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?