Why We Should Stop Calling it DRM (and Maybe Abandon It Altogether)
DRM is a very misleading description.
Every book that is under copyright comes with a form of Digital Rights Management as in author, agent, publishers, distributors, retailers having contracts in place between themselves to manage the digital rights to an e-book (contracts, not technology being the tool) and copyright law manages the digital rights framework overall.
Adobe e-book DRM and similar schemes are a form of Restrictive Access Technology (RAT) in that they restrict end-users from how they can use the e-book they “bought” (technically speaking licensed).
Watermarking or fingerprinting does not restrict access in any way, which is a huge advantage to the reader (a.k.a. buyer/consumer/end-user). Digital fingerprinting is a technology for making usage trackable and hence TRAC is maybe a more descriptive acronym than social DRM.
Moving Away From DRM
However, both of these technologies impose cost on the distribution network. They are not entirely free (even though the cost may be obscured). The lowest cost option is no RAT or TRAC technology at all. That’s how printed books are distributed. Paper currency does come with watermarks and fingerprints, in the form of serial numbers, to prevent copies being made, but printed books do not. Printed books are like coins. No watermarks, no serial numbers. It’s too expensive relative to nominal value. There is no reason e-books could not be distributed without RAT or TRAC technology (see O’Reilly Media and others).
I think the true reason we have RAT and TRAC is not economic, but emotional. We tend to think of 10,000 copies pirated by folks who would not never have bought the book, not as spurious or irrelevant data (as we should) but as books people have stolen. It is entirely natural to think that way for we are humans and humans are predictably irrational (see the great book of the same title by Dan Ariely). Both authors and society at large are sometimes more interested in seeing their ideas spread. It might be irrational to think as it is “stealing” when people read something, they would never have paid for or could have paid for, and this may be taking us down the wrong path.
Libreka, eLib, Publizon and others have done great work and moved things forward by using TRAC technology, but TRAC technology does impose a cost on either publishers or distributors (even though that cost is sometimes cleverly disguised or not recognized). Only once we move beyond the emotional barriers, can we have “naked” ePubs (or HTML5 files), unless of course we don’t believe in readers being honest people and we instead believe that anybody will “steal” if they think nobody is watching or “tracking” them. I for one believe that most people are genuinely honest most of the time (though the see Dan Ariely’s book for reminding people about honesty) but even honest people will take shortcuts if the legal and honest path is too difficult.
It is worth remembering that in the absence of any RAT or TRAC technology, copyright law is still the law of the land. Living in a democracy, we should not take that for granted either: witness the rise of the “pirate party” in Germany. A democratic majority could decide to abolish copyright, if it thinks that “copyleft” for example would be more benefitial for society.