Has Harry Potter just slain eBook DRM?

Sony's mailing to customers. Image: Sony/Pottermore/J.K. Rowling
Will the DRM-free Harry Potter eBooks – launched last week – spur a push against eBook restrictions or are they destined to become a curious anomaly?

While many books are sold without DRM, these tend to be cheaper (in price) self-published titles or those from smaller publishers.

If you’re buying an eBook from one of the biggest publishers – the sort of books you see advertised on TV or sold in supermarkets – you’re almost guaranteed the book will be encrypted with DRM.

That DRM restricts what you can do with the book including the devices or apps you can read it on.

Buy a book from Kobo or Waterstones and you can put it on a myriad of devices but not a Kindle or Apple’s iBooks app because they don’t support the Adobe DRM the book will be wrapped in.

And an eBook bought from iBooks can only be read on an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch.

Buy a book from Amazon’s Kindle store and you can read it on a Kindle or any of the devices they make apps for.

A lot people argue this means the DRM is invisible but it isn’t – you can’t put those books onto (for example) a Sony or Kobo reader or read them in a rival app because they can’t support Amazon’s DRM.

That means you’ll always be restricted to reading the books on the devices and app Amazon allows. The tether may be longer than with other sellers, but you’re still firmly tied to Amazon.

But the Harry Potter titles sweep those restrictions away – I can download a copy today and put the same file on my iPad or my Sony reader. And if swap either for a Kobo, I can read it on that too. The book is mine in a way no other major eBook is.

Instead of the usual restrictive DRM, the Potter books are watermarked with unique identifiers allowing the publishers to track illegally shared copies back to the original buyer.

Those who are honest can enjoy their books as often as they like and on whichever device they like while file sharers can be dealt with as the law and publisher’s will allows.

And that’s pretty much as it should be.

As was the case with digital music, encrypting eBooks hasn’t stopped piracy and it never will. The tools to remove most DRM types are a simple Google search away, those motivated to do so can release the locks on their books in a few minutes.

In short, the current DRM systems are too soft to deter real piracy but so over the top as to diminish the enjoyment of ordinary, IT-unaware punters who pay for their books.

While one even major franchise dropping DRM doesn’t guarantee that it’s on the way out, the popularity of the Potter eBooks proves even those with highly valuable franchises can make money without treating every buyer as a potential thief.

Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling have made it even harder for the big publishers to defend the current system. Bets on it still being here in 12 months time?