Editor’s note: Mike Violano is vice president and general manager at eReader.com, a PowerByHand company.A few topics can incite vigorous debate whenever people gather. Religion is one, politics is another, and then there is digital rights management (DRM).

The landscape of DRM is vast and the view changes radically based on one’s particular perspective. DRM covers such pivotal issues as buying and owning digital content (including music, movies, and ebooks), the evolving array of standards, copyright protection, user permission to print or share content, and how rights are communicated from the creator through the distributor to the customer.

At a recent Seybold Conference in San Francisco, executives from the media industries flocked to sessions that focused on content management and DRM. As one participant, and attendee, my views are not as a technology expert or authority on standards but come from the business point of view and how eReader.com has plotted its course through the DRM landscape.

A Pioneer in the ebook Business

At eReader.com, formerly known as Palm Digital Media, DRM has been an essential component of our business and success since the company was founded in 1999. We operate the world’s largest ebookstore in terms of sales and customers and offer more than 13,000 ebook titles with hundreds of new releases added every month. Our titles include popular fiction and nonfiction from The Da Vinci Code to Bill Clinton’s My Life to the latest bestsellers by Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Carl Hiaasen and thousands of others. eReader.com, a division of PowerByHand based in Durham, is both a technology company and a trendsetting etailer.

Our software technology is the free eReader and the enhanced eReader Pro which are cross platform ebook readers for Palm OS, Pocket PCs, and Mac and Windows laptops and desktops. However, the eReader software is optimized for handheld devices; more than 80% of our customers read predominantly or exclusively on handhelds. A Symbian version of the eReader software for smart phones is in development. Customers appreciate the ease of use, mobility, and accessibility to content that we offer.

Meanwhile, content protection is the number one concern of the 82 publishers who contribute ebooks to our webstore. Every ebook is encrypted and the unlock key is the credit card number the customer uses to purchase the title. This has proven to be a simple, elegent approach to the protection of content…and it is mighty effective since customers are not prone to post their credit card numbers on the message boards.

The primary driver of our DRM approach is respect for the customer. Once a customer buys an ebook from eReader.com, he or she owns it…for life. The ebook can be moved from one device to another without limit in stark contrast to the limitations with Adobe and Microsoft ebook readers. And a copy of every ebook purchased at eReader.com is stored on the customer’s personal bookshelf online. If a device is stolen or lost, or if the customer is traveling, the ebook can always be retrieved from the bookshelf.

Customers who purchase the eReader Pro software get unlimited free upgrades. They can choose to have the latest version of the eReader Pro automatically downloaded when they purchase a new title.

Other digital rights are efficiently managed with both the publisher and customer in mind. For example, the term of sale is limited to 60 days for emagazines…the same as newsstand sales… so we remove the content from the store at the end of the sale period. However, customers who purchased the emagazine and have it on their bookshelf can always download a copy in the months and years ahead. Another key attraction is free first chapters of nearly every ebook in the eReader store. By agreement with publishers, these first chapters are offered unencrypted. Customers can share or beam these chapters to a friend which incorporates the peer to peer and viral reality of the Internet and Palm worlds within the business of ebookselling and copyright protection.

What’s Next?

DRM is not an obstacle but the proliferating standards and myriad approaches to implementing DRM are obstacles, especially for the consumer. There are far too many rules, standards and processes that still favor the technically adept user. Customers who unsuccessfully try to download an ebook or are confused by complicated, convoluted installation routines often don’t return for a second try. The technology must be friendlier at every step along the way. We are constantly innovating to improve the customer experience and simplify the process while respecting the copyright owners.

Publisher, agent and author reservation or non-participation in the digital world is the other major obstacle. By preventing access to bestselling content, publishers are actually fostering the illegal sharing they fear. Customers of eReader.com are always requesting titles by J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and others which remain, by their choice, “not available in ebook form”.

While the technologists seek to create new and better DRM mousetraps and schemes to define rights languages and permissions someone, somewhere needs to interrupt with an important message. Keep the customer in mind! Even the best designed DRM technology, rights expression language, or the most finely crafted standards will fail if the customer experience of the content is disregarded. Technology must be the enabler, guiding all the explorers…publisher, etailer and customer in the journey…the quest for content and enjoyment of that content in all digital forms.

eReader.com: www.ereader.com