Copyright, Book Piracy and Casual Sharing: or, Why Publishers Should Dump DRM for Good

“If someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and doesn’t give you the key, then they are not looking out for your interests.” – Cory Doctorow


In recent years, the use of DRM (Digital Rights Management) on digital copyrighted material has been the subject of debate in the book publishing world. The enforcement of restrictive DRM technologies on creative work in digital form has been skillfully presented by many publishers and e-book distributors as serving a noble purpose: to protect intellectual property, as well as property owners, by preventing unauthorized access, reproduction and distribution. From this perspective, such technological safety measures, or “digital locks,” are seen as an effective weapon against piracy, by actively discouraging illegal downloads and file sharing. The deterministic association of copy protection with book piracy, however, involves an essential fallacy: the notion that embracing DRM equals taking a stand in support of intellectual property and against piracy, whereas opposing DRM equals disregarding authorship and, hence, encouraging piracy. My main argument in this paper rests on the opposite premise: publishers and e-book distributors should abandon DRM altogether precisely because intellectual property matters and needs to be protected in a way that these systems fail to do. In fact, as many industry experts have long observed, the use of coercive copyright enforcement tools has proven largely ineffective, if not harmful, in many respects. First and foremost, rather than reducing piracy, DRM has hurt legitimate consumers by restricting their freedom to access and use purchased digital goods however, whenever and wherever they wish. Second, rather than protecting e-book sales and fostering a healthier bibliodiversity in the marketplace, the use of DRM has strengthened publishers’ dependence upon large online platforms and DRM vendors, placing publishers in a disadvantaged position. Third, rather than preserving intellectual creations, the use of DRM has increased the risk of obscurity for first-time and independent authors [1], who are more likely to get lost in the never-ending maze of online information.

DRM: Debunking Resilient Myths

Among the most popular misconceptions about DRM, one is particularly easy to expose: the belief that DRM prevents piracy. In his pioneering study on the future of book publishing La quarta rivoluzione (2010), Digital Humanities Professor Gino Roncaglia provides a detailed outline of some of the most popular websites hosting download links for pirated e-books: Gigapedia, Bookfiesta4u, FreeBookSpot, Ebooksbay, and others [2]. He does this with the twofold purpose of investigating the possibility of using less intrusive DRM systems and of proving that, despite the digital locks and anti-circumvention laws supporting them, book piracy is alive and well. This is, indeed, no surprise. For one thing, you don’t need to be a hacker to crack a DRMed ebook. There is a wealth of online resources and tools that allow you to strip DRM from your ebooks without much effort. For instance, just to mention a few examples, Gizmodo has published a video tutorial on how to remove DRM from your Kindle ebooks, and Apprentice Alf’s blog offers you a complete guide on ebook DRM removal. Even the well-respected magazine Wired devoted an entire article to the topic. In addition, OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology enables anyone to extract text from scanned images of printed pages, thus making it virtually impossible to prevent pirated copies from being made (and circulated). Here is the lesson the die-hard DRM defenders must learn: locking your readers in to a single platform/device and supplier will only result in frustrating them and, in the worst case scenario, spurring them to seek other, unorthodox ways to get their books. This must be avoided at all costs, for the sake of both the reader and the publisher.

But there is another reason why publishers should abandon the use of DRM once and for all. This is to be found in the 1996 United Nations WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) Copyright Treaty, which specified that only DRM vendors are legally authorized to remove DRM. The issue is powerfully and eloquently addressed by writer and “copyright activist” Cory Doctorow in the keynote speech of last year’s Writing in a Digital Age conference.

[The WIPO Copyright Treaty] was passed into laws, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US and the European Community Copyright Directive [ECCD] in Europe, which say that removing DRM is always a crime –unless you’re the company that put it there. Effectively, it’s a law that says if you buy books from Amazon, you have to buy the bookcase, chair, lamp and lightbulb from there too. And only Amazon can release customers from this arrangement. Even though they’re your books, whose copyrights you hold, whose production you paid for [3].

According to Doctorow, these global laws gave big online and software companies, such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Adobe, “the power to usurp the relationship between publishers and their customers” [4]. Even if you disagree with Doctorow’s radical stance, the increasing dependence of publishers upon the giant online platforms is hardly debatable. This is yet another (big) reason for publishers to free themselves from the enslavement of DRM.

The fact that DRM technologies, far from being an effective anti-piracy remedy, are an off-putting inconvenience for legitimate book buyers should be a cause of concern for authors as well. Especially for first-time and independent writers who cannot rely on a large fan base and online platform, the free sharing of their work in digital form might be a valuable opportunity to “be seen” and build their readership. With DRM protection, they could miss out on this chance and their work would be more likely to languish in digital obscurity [5]. With all that said, I am not suggesting that minor authors should encourage readers to pirate their books so as to gain visibility (although bestselling writer Paolo Coelho, not long ago, famously did so, by joining a promotional program with the file-sharing website The Pirate Bay, welcoming his readers to download his work for free [6]). Rather, I am arguing in favour of the open web and the free access, use and exchange of information.

One might rightly observe that the line between online piracy and file sharing is extremely thin, if not non-existent. Here, Mike Shatzkin’s definition of “casual sharing” proves useful. In his noted blog, The Shatzkin Files, the insightful industry observer, talking about the impact of DRM on book sales, clarifies the distinction between piracy and casual sharing, defining the former as the sharing of copyrighted material “among strangers,” and the latter as the same activity but occurring “between people who know each other” [7]. When addressing the issue of whether piracy and causal sharing damage book sales, he takes an original stand:

I have no idea whether piracy helps sales or hurts them but, whatever it does, I can’t see how DRM prevents it. But I do think DRM prevents “casual sharing” (it sure stops me; and I think most people are more like me than they are like my friends who break DRM for sport) […] and I believe – based on faith, not on data – that enabling casual sharing would do real damage to ebook sales with the greatest damage to the biggest books [8].

While taking Shatzkin’s point about the difficulty of measuring the real effects of piracy on the industry, I disagree with the idea that casual sharing might be harmful to book sales. On the contrary, I believe that casual sharing, as the “new automation assisted word of mouth,” [9] might actually promote sales by amplifying the power of personal recommendations through online channels. This, in my view, would benefit both emerging and established authors.


It is my firm belief that the free generation and circulation of knowledge and ideas is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, as well as an irreplaceable means of economic advancement. In the same way that producers of creative work should be adequately compensated, individuals should be granted the right to freely and easily access, use and share information. Imposing technological restrictions such as DRM compromises this right, which is a crucial condition for everyone’s personal, social and intellectual growth. Ensuring both that makers of creative works are remunerated and that individuals are free to access and share knowledge should be among the top priorities of any laws regulating intellectual property. Acknowledging these tenets is essential if we are to live in a free, democratic society.


[1] O’Really 2002.

[2] Roncaglia 2010 [Kindle Edition].

[3] Quoted in Tagholm 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] To know more on the topic, read O’Really’s enlightening piece “Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution.”

[6] Flood 2012.

[7] Shatzkin 2011.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

Works Cited

Dachis, Adam. 2011. “How to remove DRM you’re your Kindle ebooks.” Gizmodo, January 15.

Doctorow, Cory. 2012. “Why the Death of DRM Would be Good News for Readers, Writers and Publishers.” The Guardian, May 3.

Flood, Alison. 2012. “Paulo Coelho Calls on Readers to Pirate books.” The Guardian, 1 February.

New DRM-Free Ebook Store for Indie Authors, Publishers”. 2013. Digital Book World [press release], June 16.

O’Really, Tim. 2002. “Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution.” O’Reilly Media, 12 November.

Roncaglia, Gino. 2010. La quarta rivoluzione: Sei lezioni sul futuro del libro. Roma: Laterza.

Shatzkin, Mike. 2011. “DRM May not Prevent Piracy, but it Might Still Protect Sales.” The Shatzkin Files, Jan 13.

Sorrel, Charlie. “How To Strip DRM from Kindle E-Books and Others.” 2011. Wired, January 17.

Tagholm, Roger. 2014. “Doctorow on the Dangers Posed by Ebook DRM Dictators.” Publishing Perspectives. June 20.

2 Replies to “Copyright, Book Piracy and Casual Sharing: or, Why Publishers Should Dump DRM for Good”

  1. This is an interesting and a well-argued essay on Digital Right Management. The debate on this topic is ongoing and very dicey to make a distinction between its negative and positive influence on the book publishing industry. You made a good argument on why publishers and e-book distributors should abandon DRM altogether, because of its failure to protect rights as intellectual property right does. The three reasons you gave to prove your arguments, gives me a clear understanding of what the essay is about. I totally agree that over protection of our eBooks is rather making us lose the essence of the actual role of DRMs, due to the several online resources that allow hacker to crack an eBook.

    Another interesting argument in the essay, is the point from Doctorow’s speech on the publisher-consumer relationship. It is important for publishers to build a relationship with their consumers rather than the online platforms. I believe Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, etc., are just online platforms and should not necessarily be given the authority to takeover publisher’s power on copyright protection. As argued in the essay, it is high time publishers free themselves from the dependence of DRM.

    Even though I agree with the above mentioned reasons why publishers should dump DRM, the question that comes to mind is how authors’ intellectual property would be protected or better still, how they would be adequately compensated for their ideas. In as much as we appeal for “fair use” or “fair dealing” for academic purposes, it cannot be on the same level as an entirely-hacked literary title, which is mostly not for academic purposes. After all the tutorials on how to remove DRMs from eBooks, we are not assured of pirate-free eBooks, which shows how insecure authors and publishers are in this digital age. I believe there could be more thoughts and ideas into ways of protecting intellectual property other than the use of Digital Right Management system.

    On the whole, this is a great and a well-written piece that can lead to other studies into a more secured and promising key to prevent piracy on electronic books other than DRMs. A further study could be done on “Digital Watermarking/Social DRM”, which could be of help.

    Good work!

  2. This essay puts forward a clear position on the value of DRM. I especially liked how it was forcefully presented at the beginning, and that you found several points on which to hang your argument.

    The essay is well-written and, except for a couple of spots, it hangs together with a unified voice.

    As you can see from the inline comments (use, there are a couple of spots where I thought it suffered from a lapse in logic. There are also a few spots where you could really use a citation to substantiate what you are saying.

    Overall, however, I thought it made an interesting contribution to the discussion of DRMs.

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