Adobe Resurrects E-Book DRM… Again

Over the past couple of weeks, Adobe has made a series of low-key announcements regarding new versions of its DRM for e-books, Adobe Content Server and Rights Management SDK.  The new versions are ACS5 and RMSDK10 respectively, and they are released on major platforms now (iOS, Android, etc.) with more to come next month.

The new releases, though rumored for a while, came as something of a surprise to those of us who understood Adobe to have lost interest in the e-book market… again.  They did so for the first time back in 2006, before the launch of the Kindle kicked the market into high gear.  At that time, Adobe announced that version 3 of ACS would be discontinued.  Then the following year, Adobe reversed course and introduced ACS4.  ACS4 supports the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)’s EPUB standard as well as Adobe’s PDF.

This saga repeated itself, roughly speaking, over the past year.  As the IDPF worked on version 3 of EPUB, Adobe indicated that it would not upgrade its e-reader software to work with it, nor would it guarantee that ACS4 would support it.  The DRM products were transferred to an offshore maintenance group within Adobe, and all indications were that Adobe was not going to develop it any further.  Now that’s all changed.

Adobe had originally positioned ACS in the e-book market as a de facto standard DRM.  It licensed the technology to a large number of makers of e-reader devices and applications, and e-book distributors around the world.  At first this strategy seemed to work: ACS looked like an “everyone but Amazon” de facto standard, and some e-reader vendors (such as Sony) even migrated from proprietary DRMs to the Adobe technology.

But then cracks began to appear: Barnes & Noble “forked” ACS with its own extensions to support features such as user-to-user lending in the Nook system; Apple launched iBooks with a variant of its FairPlay DRM for iTunes content; and independent bookstores’ IndieBound system adopted Kobo, which has its own DRM.  Furthermore, interoperability of e-book files among different RMSDK-based e-readers was not exactly seamless.  As of today, “pure” ACS represents only a minor part of the e-book retail market, at least in the US, including Google Play, SmashWords, and retailers served by OverDrive and other wholesalers.

It’s unclear why Adobe chose to go back into the e-book DRM game, though pressure from publishers must have been a factor.  Adobe can’t do much about interoperability glitches among retailers and readers, but publishers and distributors alike have asked for various features to be added to ACS over the years.  Publishers have mainly been concerned with the relatively easy availability of hacks, while distributors have also expressed the desire for a DRM that facilitates certain content access models that ACS4 does not currently support.

The new ACS5/RMSDK10 platform promises to give both publishers and distributors just about everything they have asked for.  First, Adobe has beefed up the client-side security using (what appear to be) software hardening, key management, and crypto renewability techniques that are commonly used for video and games nowadays.

Adobe has also added support for several interesting content access models. At the top of the list of most requested models is subscriptions.  ACS5 will not only support periodical-style subscriptions but also periodic updates to existing files; the latter is useful in STM (scientific, technical, medical) and various professional publishing markets.

ACS5 also contains two enhancements that are of interest to the educational market.  One is support for collections of content shared among multiple devices, which is useful for institutional libraries.  Another is support for “bulk fulfillment,” such as pre-loading e-reader devices with encrypted books (such as textbooks).  Bulk fulfillment requires a feature called separate license delivery, which is supported in many DRMs but hasn’t been in ACS thus far.  With separate license delivery, DRM-packaged files can be delivered in any way (download, optical disk, device pre-load, etc.), and then the user’s device or app can obtain licenses for them as needed.

Finally, ACS5 will support the Readium Foundation’s open-source EPUB3 e-reader software.  Adobe is “evaluating the feasibility” of supporting the Readium EPUB 3 SDK in its Adobe Reader Mobile SDK; but this means that distributors will now definitely be able to accommodate EPUB3 in their apps.

In all, ACS5 fulfills many of the wish list items that I have heard from publishers over the past couple of years, leaving one with the impression that it could expand its market share again and move towards Adobe’s original goal of de facto standard-hood (except for Amazon and possibly Apple).  ACS5 is backward compatible with older versions of ACS and does not require that e-books be re-packaged; in other words, users can read their older files in RMSDK10-enabled e-readers.

Yet Adobe made a gaffe in its announcements that immediately jeopardized all this potential: it initially gave the impression that it would force upgrades to ACS5/RMSDK10 this July.  (Watch this webinar video from Adobe’s partner Datalogics, starting around the 21-minute mark.)  Distributors would have to upgrade their apps to the latest versions, with the hardened security; and users would have to install the upgrades before being able to read e-books packaged with the new DRM.  Furthermore, if users obtain e-books packaged with the new DRM, they would not be able to read them on e-readers based on the older RMSDK. (Yet another sign that Adobe has acted on pressure from publishers rather than distributors.)  In other words, Adobe wanted to force the entire ACS ecosystem to move to a more secure DRM client in lock-step.

This forced-upgrade routine is similar to what DRM-enabled download services like iTunes (video) do with their client software.  But then Apple doesn’t rely on a network of distributors, almost all of which maintain their own e-reading devices and apps.

In any case, the backlash from distributors and the e-publishing blogosphere was swift and harsh; and Adobe quickly relented.  Now the story is that distributors can decide on their own upgrade timelines.  In other words, publishers will themselves have to put pressure on distributors to upgrade the DRM, at least for the traditional retail and library-lending models; and some less-secure implementations will likely remain out there for some time to come.

Adobe’s new release balances between divergent effects of DRM.  On the one hand, DRM interoperability is more important than ever for publishers and distributors alike, to counteract the dominance of Amazon in the e-book retail market; and the surest way to achieve DRM interoperability is to do away with DRM altogether.  (There are other ways to inhibit interoperability that have nothing to do with DRM.)  But on the other hand, integrating interoperability with support for content access models that are unsupportable without some form of content access control — such as subscriptions and institutional library access — seems like an attractive idea.  Adobe has survived tugs-of-war with publishers and distributors over DRM restrictions before, so this one probably won’t be fatal.


  1. billtrippe · ·

    Great analysis, Bill, as always. From what you describe, it does sound like ACS5 will support institutional licensing though you don’t specifically mention access via IP range.

    I agree Adobe fumbled the announcement. They don’t seem to have a person who is the public face of the product.

  2. Thanks Bill. As far as institutional licensing is concernced, the best publicly available details are (unfortunately) in the Datalogics webinar that I linked to; Adobe’s own documentation says nothing about it.

    IP address ranges are a convenient way to specify a group of devices, but it’s unclear whether ACS5 supports that. If I had to guess, I’d say that Adobe could extend their existing scheme of tying accounts to a fixed number of devices (1 Adobe ID/N device activations) to support the institutional model, simply by allowing N to be set on a per-ID basis rather than fixed at 4 or 6 or whatever it is.

  3. billtrippe · ·

    Many thanks, Bill. I will watch the video.

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