E-books and devices with which to read them are gaining popularity. If you are thinking of getting an e-reader, there is something you need to understand about e-books: digital rights management, or DRM for short.

DRM is what used to be called “copy protection:” it’s software that prevents you from making copies of an e-book (or a movie, or a computer program, or an audio recording, or any other digital media). DRM goes beyond just copy protection though. You may have noticed that most programs have a “save” or “save as” function, which could be used to make copies of whatever data is loaded into the program. To prevent you from making copies, then, DRM software must prevent you from loading the data (e-book, video, etc.) into just any old program. It must limit you to loading the data into programs that can’t save it.

DRM means is that when you buy an e-book, you can’t read it on any program or device you want. You have to use programs or devices that are approved by the e-book publisher. This often requires you to jump through a lot of extra hoops.

If all DRM did was prevent you from making copies, then one could argue that it’s really not that bad. DRM is perfect for another (mis)use by publishers, though: to lock readers to using a particular device or program. Since (to prevent copying) an e-book can only be read on an approved device, if you buy an e-book for a Kindle and then later decide you want to read it on an iPad, whether you can do that is not up to you. It’s up to Amazon.

With a paper book, when you buy a copy, you own the copy. This is called the first sale doctrine. You can loan the copy to a friend, or re-sell it, or donate it to a school or library. With an e-book, not so much. The DRM software “manages” your rights, preventing you from doing anything contrary to the publisher’s profit motive.

In fact, unlike a paper book, an e-book can become unreadable if the publisher wants it to. You might be forced to upgrade your software in order to keep using your books. The e-reader you chose might lose in the marketplace and go out of production, leaving you with a collection of books you can only read on one obsolete device — until that device wears out. The publisher might decide to take the book away from you after you’ve paid for it.

DRM gives the publisher complete control over what you can do with an e-book: not only whether you can make copies, but how you read the book, even when you read the book. They can force you to sign in with their Web server in order to read. Charging a fee every time you open the book is well within the realm of technical possibility (though any publisher who tried that today would fail in the marketplace). Forcing readers to look at advertisements in order to read books is already in the works.

Frankly, for a company to have that much control over information is rather scary. When George Orwell wrote his famous novel 1984, he envisioned the Party being able to erase history by destroying documents and records — but he never imagined the ability to un-publish a book, nor the ability to silently rewrite it and replace the copies in all the readers’ libraries.

Back in 1997, Richard Stallman wrote a story called The Right to Read about a dystopian future where students had to pay exorbitant fees to read books. That story is worth a second look today in light of the widespread use of DRM and the rising importance of e-books.

E-Books Without DRM

All is not gloom and doom, though. Music publishers including iTunes have backed away from DRM for downloadable music. As the e-book market grows and matures, there’s a strong possibility that DRM may go the same way.

Although all e-book readers support DRM, not all of them require it. The Barnes & Noble e-reader, the Nook, allows users to lend their books and it can read several DRM-unencumbered formats.

To be fair, the Kindle can read PDFs as well, though not a lot of material is published in that format outside of niche markets.

Before you plunk down $250 for an e-reader (and then, if you’re like me, several hundred dollars more for books), I strongly encourage you to investigate what DRM is attached you that reader and those books. Then you can decide whether you want to gamble on how long the publisher will choose to let you keep reading those books, advertising-free, in the future.