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Random House Germany Goes Halfway, Adopts "Soft" DRM

verlagsgruppe-rh-logo-1600x900px_article_landscape_gt_1200_gridBertelsmann announced on Tuesday that its Germany publishing subsidiary, Verlagsgruppe Random House, will allow its distributors to start using digital watermarks, or "soft" DRM, on 1 October.

Do you here that? It’s the sound of a fundamental shift in the industry.

Though it is described as "not formally part of" the international Penguin Random House publishing conglomerate, Random House Germany is still a close cousin. It’s also the largest publisher in Germany, and now it is following in the footsteps of its next two largest competitors, Holtzbrinck and Bonnier, both of which opted for a lighter form of DRM earlier this year.

They have not yet gone DRM-free, but this is still great news for ebook readers everywhere.

As I have reported in the past (including as recently as last Friday), a digital watermark is one of the lighter forms of DRM. It consists of a tiny bit of unique code that is added to a copy of a file when it is (ideally) sold to a customer. The code doesn’t impact the reading experience, and it can be used to identify the customer who bought the file should that file turn up on a pirate service.

This is not DRM-free, but it is the next best thing. But I would not set off fireworks just yet, because the publishers could still be using hard DRM in certain ebookstores.

There’s disagreement in technical circles as to whether digital watermarks count as DRM, but for the time being we’re going to have to count it that way – and not just because publishers think that way.

While the publishers are using a softer form of DRM, they still see digital watermarks as DRM (Random House Germany was clear on this point in their announcement). That means when they don’t have the option of digital watermarks, they could opt for hard DRM.

For example, the Kindle Store only offers two DRM options in KDP: no DRM and hard DRM. This forces a publisher to either use Kindle DRM or no DRM, and we cannot assume that the publishers will opt for DRM-free.

Pottermore, for example, uses digital watermarks on the ebooks it sells, but it also applies Kindle DRM to any Harry Potter ebook you send to your Kindle account.

Similarly, a spokesperson for the Bonnier imprint Ullstein Buchverlage confirmed that its ebooks use Kindle DRM.

Edit: In the comment section, a reader confirmed that this mixed-DRM situation was common in France:

That’s what happens here in France, where many small publishers choose watermarks, many small to medium e-booksellers do watermarks, and only Amazon, Kobo, Apple and Google do encryption-based DRM.

I am still waiting to hear back from Random House Germany, but I would not assume that any publisher has completely switched to soft DRM without explicit confirmation.

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TheSFReader August 18, 2015 um 10:27 am

Actually, a publisher can choose to go "soft DRM", and have the books sold with watermarks at resellers than can do WM, and encryption-based DRM at the ones that can only do Nude/Hard-DRM.

That’s what happens here in France, where many small publishers choose WM, many small to medium e-booksellers do WM, and only Amazon, Kobo, Apple and Google do encryption-based DRM.

Nate Hoffelder August 18, 2015 um 10:29 am

Isn’t this what I wrote in the post? I could rewrite it if it’s not clear.

TheSFReader August 18, 2015 um 10:34 am

"we cannot assume that the publishers will opt for DRM-free."
I think we can assume that the publisher is OK with their books being with encryption-based DRM if the reseller doesn’t do Watermark, and that’s what they chose, what is done.

Well, I guess I’m mostly nitpicking…

Nate Hoffelder August 18, 2015 um 10:47 am

I think so, yes. I was understating the case.

zorro August 18, 2015 um 10:27 am

So, what you’re saying is, even when the publisher doesn’t impose DRM, Amazon does. That just seems like another (really good) reason not to buy ebooks from the Kindle store, rather than a reason to nit-pick this significant step in the right direction.

Nate Hoffelder August 18, 2015 um 10:31 am

As I see it, the publisher is imposing the DRM. It’s just that in the Kindle Store, the DRM is not soft.

TheSFReader August 18, 2015 um 10:31 am

If the publisher asks for no DRM, Amazon usually does. If the publisher asks for DRM, Amazon always does DRM. If the publisher asks for Watermarks, Amazon always does DRM.

(works absolutely the same for Kobo, and probably Apple and Google)

zorro August 18, 2015 um 2:35 pm

My point was, I think that the resellers who refuse to implement soft DRM schemes (such as Amazon, and presumably others) even though these systems are widely available, are more to blame than publishers who switch to soft DRM but still hesitate to go the extra step to no DRM at all if soft is not available.

It would be nice to encourage the publishers who are going the right direction and also call out the resellers who are holding the movement back, who are arguably a bigger problem than the publishers. Thus I only purchase my ebooks from resellers who provide watermarking for the publishers who are willing to forgo hard DRM, and I don’t buy ebooks from Amazon.

TheSFReader August 18, 2015 um 4:02 pm

Absolutely. Still, I’ve decided to keep buying from Amazon, as that’s where Indie Authors sell the best and where my buying has the most effect on their results.

dfgdf August 18, 2015 um 6:44 pm

Good move, although I’d argue that watermarking cannot count as DRM (digital restrictions management), since watermarking does not technically restrict the user. There’s merely the legal restriction to respect the licence but no additional mechanism to enforce or manage this.

David Rothman August 19, 2015 um 5:22 am

@DFGDF: You’re right. Watermarking in the strict technical sense is not DRM, since this isn’t about access control per se. From Wikipedia: “Watermarks are not complete DRM mechanisms in their own right, but are used as part of a system for copyright enforcement, such as helping provide prosecution evidence for purely legal avenues of rights management, rather than direct technological restriction." A form of "social DRM"? Perhaps. That said, yes, it is accurate to say the publishers are shedding plain old DRM as as we know it.

ma-ruda August 21, 2015 um 7:36 am

In Poland ALL publishers, no matter of the e-store use wattermakrs ("soft DRM). It’s enough to track eventual abuse on the account of a reader, and is much more convenient – you paid for it, you can use it (and are responible for it).

Nate Hoffelder August 21, 2015 um 7:56 am

But what about Polish books in the Kindle Store? How do publishers handle that platform’s DRM?

ma-ruda August 21, 2015 um 8:15 am

Amazon treat polish books like a plague, so you won’t find them in there in bulk. But without problem you can buy from polish platform and read on Kindle (most big polish e-stores even send ebooks automatically on Kindle e-mail provided in user’s profile).

Nate Hoffelder August 21, 2015 um 8:59 am

But I thought KDP supported Polish now?

Edit: And thanks for the detail!

ma-ruda August 21, 2015 um 9:11 am

Yeah, my replay published separately…

ma-ruda August 21, 2015 um 9:10 am

Big polish publishers won’t give Amazon their cut (which is grosely inflated), you can find some self-published ebooks, but AFAIK they also often have problems (for example Amazon randomly withdraw some publications).
Most polish readers buy Kindle e-reader from Amazon (possible from Kindle Keyborad enternational version), but content from other platforms (you can read books with watermarks however you like, they also sync in Amazon ecosystem).

Nate Hoffelder August 21, 2015 um 9:13 am


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