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Do ebook copy protection schemes work?


I’m looking at some ebook publishing software that claims to allow me to
lock an ebook that a customer purchases to only one computer so that it cannot
be shared. Can that work?

Yes, it can. Sort of.

And, for the record, ebook publishers that do this drive me nuts, and
typically don’t get my business.

Let me explain…

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I actually don’t know the specific details of most of the technologies these
services use, but I can speculate. However I’ll admit that, even though they
annoy me, I have on occasion purchased ebooks of this ilk, so I do understand
the user experience.

From the customer’s point of view, they typically download the ebook in the
form of a “setup” program. When they set it up, they’re required to enter a
serial number or activation code that they got at time of purchase. The setup
program then encodes some information into the ebook itself that only allows it
to be read on the particular machine that it was set up on. If you copy the
book or the software that’s used to read it to another machine, it simply fails
to run.

Some systems allow you to run the setup on more than one machine, so that
book might be able to be installed on more machines, as long as you have the
activation code. Others check to see if that activation code has already been
used, and will deny any setup other than the first – unless you purchase an
additional code.

I can think of several ways to tie an ebook – or any software – to a
particular machine. In fact, it’s something that we’ve seen Windows itself do,
as well as Microsoft Office.

Regardless of how it’s done, copy protecting ebooks has several pitfalls.
Some are technical in nature while others are usability issues.

  • Most copy-protected ebooks require their own reader software. That means in
    addition to downloading the book itself, the customer must download and install
    software that’s used to actually decode and read the book. At a minimum this is
    an annoyance for many customers, and often a source of compatibility problems.
    Personally I’ve found those dedicated viewers to be less polished and powerful
    than more common tools such as Adobe Reader. It typically also means that the
    reader software needs to be produced for different platforms (Windows, Mac,
    Linux), or you as the author must explicitly decide that users of some
    platforms simply cannot read your ebook.

  • “Regardless of how it’s done, copy protecting ebooks has
    several pitfalls.”

    Ebooks that are locked to a single machine are frustrating, at best, for
    customers such as myself: I have several machines, and I may want to read the
    book on several of them at different times. Perhaps on my desktop with its
    larger screen when I’m at home, perhaps my laptop if I’m traveling. Heck,
    perhaps even on my PDA if I’m out and about. Customers are typically not
    willing to purchase the book multiple times for that flexibility. I know I’m

  • Most copy protection schemes can be cracked. It depends on the type of
    scheme, and the dedication of the cracker, but there’s no guarantee that your
    book will never be stolen, even if you do use a copy protection service. None
    are perfect.

I see strong copy protection as a disincentive for customers to
purchase your book. It places barriers to reading your book, makes the
experience less flexible and more cumbersome.

If I could influence you with my preference, it would be this: publish in
unrestricted PDF. Or, if you must, publish in PDF with a single password (no
per-user password, just a single password that will open any copy of the book).
Place a strong statement at the beginning about theft, and leave it at

From what I have heard from ebook publishers, the loss of sales due to theft
is often more than offset by the additional sales from using a standard and
flexible format, plus the additional sales that are generated by any “word of
mouth” sharing. Many honest people actually decide to purchase the book – if
it’s good – after they’ve received a bootleg copy.

Naturally, your business needs and your understanding of your customer will
determine what’s appropriate for you. The technologies can certainly work if
you decide that’s the direction you want to take.

Do this

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10 comments on “Do ebook copy protection schemes work?”

  1. Hi Leo, and yes the article was informative. If you don’t mind, could you please provide some detail as to exactly how to accomplish what you referred to in your following statement?:

    “I can think of several ways to tie an ebook – or any software – to a particular machine. In fact, it’s something that we’ve seen Windows itself do, as well as Microsoft Office.”

    I understand your feelings regarding the annoyance, but I have another slightly related idea that might lessen the discouragement. I’d surely appreciate your deeper descriptions of the various ways you mentioned knowing about and exactly where and how to access them!

    Thanks much!!

  2. I’ll be printing the first edition of my book soon, and I am currently preparing an ebook version. The article is good, full of relevant information and answered a lot of my questions, but I noticed that it’s dated 1/2007. I’m wondering if technological advances in the last 3 years have caused you to alter your thoughts on strong copy protection vs. unrestricted pdf.

    Nope. Smile


  3. I sell several e-books, all protected, all running as standalone programmes (no extra viewer required) and my sales INCREASED by more than 150% in the 12 months after I started using the protection system. Probably because it was now the only way to get the book.

    People will buy a book if they like it after they have a bootleg copy? I think not! They’ll buy a book if they want it, protected or otherwise.

    I’ve had a grumble or two but the increase in sales was worth that small inconvenience.

    Terence Watts

  4. Hi Terence,

    I completely agree with you. I have a small e-book for children and am planning to sell it. Would really appreciate if you can help me out with the details of the protection system you are using. Please!

  5. Yes, Terrance, please share your secret. I’ve just published a physical book and several times I’m asked to send it by E-book to another country. I would like this convenience, but I’m not sure of having it become a “free” for all.

    Leo, are you familiar with any programs that send the users e-mail link back to the author? I believe it’s called “viral.” OH, and thank you for this site, it’s helpful. Diane
    Thanks Diane

  6. Leo,

    I totally agree with your opinion. You are truly showing an understanding of the real world !

    Notwithstanding the fact that your article dates back to 2007, today’s reality is that things have not changed that much, except that more confusion (read “hype”) has been created by the numerous ebooks protection and Digital Rights Management vendors.

    As an expert in electronic document technologies (and in the Portable Document Format), I recently published a book called “One to One ebooks” that further explains:

    1) How any ebook can be copied – despite what all ebooks’ protection technology vendors say;
    2) How drastic protection measures could actually reduce an author’s sales;
    3) How to “reasonnably” protect an ebook against illegal redistribution; and, most importantly,
    4) How “Drifting Copies” could be an author’s best viral marketing tool.

    A free preview that expands on these topics can be found at

    Everyone is welcomed to read it, distribute it and comment on it.

  7. For the record bud, you are not someone that I would want to sell my book to. If you want to read my book, you pay for it and abide by the terms of sale, one of which is shut your mouth after the fact.

    We’re even, then, since you don’t sound like someone whose ebook I’d want to purchase in the first place. I’m not sure who you’re disagreeing with, but I don’t support piracy and do frequently state that people should abide by the rules and terms of sale.

  8. I fail to understand how reasonable people can expect free digital content just because it can be viewed on a computer. These same people do not expect free bread at a bakery or free paperbacks at a book store. Some computer users believe the Internet is, and should be, free – when if fact, most of the content on the web has a price and a cost — usually in the form of annoying advertising. This site is an example.

    With hundreds of products available to steal PDF content and only a few security products available to protect PDF content — I’m amazed that Leo would advocate authors to sell unprotected files. While some authors produce and distribute royalty free works, many authors believe they have a right to earn an income from their copyright material. After all, Leo seems to think it’s great to earn income from his advertising links

    Personally, I think DRM’s bad reputation is mostly caused by bad systems that are complicated, annoying, difficult to use (for both authors and end users), extremely expensive and too easily cracked.

    HYPrLock PDF Security offers a DRM system that is inexpensive, effective, uses Adobe Reader and is virtually impossible to crack. It’s one time activation (without constant online logins) will even be appreciated by end users like Leo. HYPrLock’s low (one time) purchase price, unlimited distribution and maximum security should appeal to all PDF authors.

  9. Re “uses Adobe Reader and is virtually impossible to crack”… is this meant to be a joke column? The reason for using proprietary readers to prevent the easiest of exploits. By distributing documents that can be read in a common reader, one that does not uniquely interpret the encrypted file, you are not protected at all, except from grannies who don’t know where to turn on a computer.


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