Harry Potter and the Digital Rights Management

So JK Rowling finally made her ebooks available for sale last night. It’s about time. It’s been described as the ‘Beatles moment’ for ebooks. The Beatles moment they’re referring to is when the Beatles finally acquiesced to selling their albums digitally on the iTunes store.

The Potter ebooks are a bigger deal in book publishing circles than the Beatles going on iTunes for a number of reasons. Imagine that instead of making their music available on iTunes, the Beatles had set up their own website and payment system and forced all the retailers to link through their site in order to purchase their content. Imagine, too, that all music being sold at that point by major retailers was sold with restrictive DRM (digital rights management) and the Beatles were the first major brand to sell without it.

JK Rowling and the Pottermore project (led by ex-HarperCollins head of digital Charlie Redmayne) have done something with ebooks that has never been done before. They’ve effectively forced Amazon to list the books without actually selling them directly. That means JK Rowling and co. get all the sales (and I mean all of them – there’s no commission being skimmed off by paying via PayPal or anyone else). They also get all the customer information that Amazon would ordinarily collect. And they’ve done it by making their books available without DRM.

The screenshot above is the only DRM that Pottermore is including on the books sold through the site. It sits on the copyright page, and identifies the user of the ebook. If you were to post up the unaltered version of a Pottermore ebook on a file sharing site (or email it to a friend, who then shared it), you could be identified with this code, and presumably you could be sued or blacklisted from Pottermore if Ms Rowling was so inclined.

This kind of watermarking, also known as ‘social DRM’, doesn’t restrict the user from doing what they want with the file, but it does make the user think twice about sharing (particularly with someone they don’t trust). As far as I can find by opening up the EPUB file this code doesn’t exist anywhere else in the book except for on the copyright page, so it would be relatively easy to remove it (but not much easier, it should be pointed out, than removing normal DRM from an ebook).

The power of this kind of DRM, though, is that it can be applied by anyone, not just a book retailer, and it costs (virtually) nothing to implement. Importantly, it also means that ebook readers of any platform can buy your book and put it on their device without syncing, linking, three different logins or any other issues. It allows sharing among friends and family that you trust, and it passes the Grandma test (my grandma would understand how it works).

Amazon has been forced to list the books to avert serious leakage from their platform. If Amazon had decided not to link and list the Potter ebooks via their site, then Pottermore would have sold them to Kindle customers anyway. And those Kindle customers, who may have never bought an ebook from outside Amazon before would all of a sudden know that it was possible and how to do it. And Amazon doesn’t want that.

This opens up a massive opportunity for publishers to use a brand like JK Rowling to get some more leverage with Amazon. The Pottermore purchasing system may not be the smoothest around, but it works and it’s certainly not beyond publishers or their intermediaries to set up something similar. Publishers have tried to do this before – but they haven’t done it with a brand like Harry Potter.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and Pottermore has demonstrated one way that publishers haven’t tried yet. Amazon’s chokehold on the distribution of digital books is not as watertight as it seemed just yesterday morning.

For its part, Momentum is making our very first debut author’s book available without DRM. The Chimera Vector is available for pre-order right now from your retailer of choice for the early bird price of $AU2.99. Go on, you know you want to.

  • Andrew Farrell

    Interesting, and may hopefully forge a path for others with slightly less powerful brands to follow…
    In the meantime, just went to check Chimera Vector and the iBookstore link 1) opens in the same window; 2) then opens iTunes (you can actually display the iBooks info in a regular browser) and most importantly 3) tells me it’s not available because I’m not in the US!?

    • joelnaoum

      1) Do you have a US iTunes account? It’s not yet distributed in the US – but it will be very soon. 2) We open it in the same window in order to track the clickthroughs – we’re trying to sort a workaround, but it seems to be tough at this point. 3) The browser-based iBookstore links only work for country-specific links, which we don’t want to use – we want that link to go to the clicker’s local iTunes store. If you know a workaround, let me know, but I got that direct from Apple!

  • It’s not showing on Google books and Kindle Store has it as $3.43 I think, more than 2.99 anyway

    • joelnaoum

      It’s showing up on Amazon as $3.23, which is the US price. Unfortunately Amazon doesn’t support Australian currency. However, it really will be only $2.99 in Australian dollars. Thanks for the heads up about Google – I’ll take that link down and investigate immediately.

  • joelnaoum

    It’s showing up on Amazon as $3.23, which is the US price. Unfortunately Amazon doesn’t support Australian currency. However, it really will be only $2.99 in Australian dollars. Thanks for the heads up about Google – I’ll take that link down and investigate immediately.

  • mrconnorobrien

    Heya Joel,

    I’m curious about how you’re going with the DRM free ebooks – which is totally awesome, by the way.

    Are any of the platforms/stores forcing you to add in compulsory DRM, or is there a level of freedom for publishers to set the level of DRM as they wish? I’ve always been under the impression DRM works more in the favor of the device/platform owner than the publisher so was thinking there was a bit of resistance on their behalf… but is it actually mostly down to the whims of the publisher now?


    • joelnaoum

      As far as I know, most retailers don’t force DRM anymore. To be honest, it’s got more to do with the author’s choice. Our policy is to include DRM as standard. It’s their copyright, after all, and we have to respect that unless they say otherwise. Nathan Farrugia (bless him) is adamant that his books not have DRM on them, so we’re happy to remove it. It’s a bit of a test for us, though, so it’ll be interesting to see whether all the retailers follow through.

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