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.

[This post was originally posted on The Momentum Blog]

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