Smashwords, DRM and You

eBooks have provided a fascinating addition to readers’ lives. Themselves, intangible, we’ve become gadget geeks and we read on our Nooks and Kindles, ebooks taking a spot between mass markets and webpages.

But there has been a downside to this, and for the most part can be summed up in three letters: DRM.

What is DRM? Digital Rights Management, the intention is to make a file that can only be opened by the person who purchased it, hence cutting down on piracy (this is not going to be a discussion on that subject). Sounds reasonable, no?


First off, pirates aren’t using these files, they have non-DRM versions. We, the legitimate buyers of these files are. But we bought them, right? What’s the problem then?

Overall, DRM has changed its function. Intended to curb piracy (something it had no affect either way on), it has instead turned into a method of vendor lock in for these digital goods.

How so? If you buy a book with DRM from Amazon, it will work on your Kindle. Which, if you have a Kindle, is great. But what if you decide you like that new Nook and want to use it? No big deal, right? both are ebook readers, just like MP3 players, this should be easy. Of course, it is not.

Aside from the formatting issues (Kindle uses a proprietary format, AZW, Nook uses the more common ePub), the DRM prevents you from doing this. Even if you had a Nook ePub and wanted to put it on your Kobo, both which read ePub, you could not. There is software that will convert file formats for called Calibre (which I HIGHLY recommend) but cannot do so with DRM-ed files.*

So even if you like that Nook, you would have to buy all new books because your old ones are locked up in Amazon’s court.

Add on another issue, the DRM itself needs to be authenticated. So you sign in with your BN or Amazon account on your reader, or on your computer software, it checked to make sure that you are you and you bought it (yes, even after it has been downloaded) and then you can read. So what’s the big deal? Ask anyone who purchased DRM-ed music from WalMart. They shut their DRM servers, pretty much making those “purchases” null and void. This punished legitimate customers for making legitimate purchases.

This is where Smashwords comes in. Smashwords is an ebook store that sells you not just one type of book (mobi or epub or PDF), but all types of the ebook. So say you buy an issue of LampLight from Amazon, you get a Kindle file. If you buy that same issue from Smashwords, you get that issue in Kindle, ePub, PDF, txt, RTF and can read it online if you wish–all without DRM**.

So, download those books, back them up on other harddrives, burn them to disk. Put them on your Nook, Kobo or Kindle (or anything you want!). If Smashwords goes out of business, they will still work.

But they aren’t the only ones. Baen, a publisher of sci-fi offers purchases (and a large free library) without DRM. Storybundle’s offerings come free off those three little letters. And many independent publishers, such as NeCon eBooks, offer sales direct through their stores san-DRM.

So do yourself a favor, and download Calibre (which is free and open source) and take control over your eBook library. See if you can get that book without DRM.

  • yes, yes, I know. Google is your friend, just don’t be a jerk.

** So, to be fair, there are files on Amazon and Barnes and Noble that do not have DRM. However, neither site makes finding those titles, or even knowing if a title you are looking at is one of them very easy.

Author: jake

poet, editor, kilt wearing heathen. he/him