The setup: I wish to purchase an ebook. I own a Sony Reader, which is a useful device for reading ebooks. (It's much slimmer than books, for one thing; it fits more or less comfortably in a large pants pocket.) So I go online, search for the book I wish to purchase, and quickly descend into hell.
First, I feel compelled to touch on the price of the ebook. I know for a fact that the entire process of creating my copy of the ebook, and transferring it to my computer, costs the website less than the process of me actually purchasing it. So why is it that ebooks nearly always cost the same amount as a paperback copy of the book? As a consumer, it grates on my nerves a bit when the price of an item is so obviously arbitrary. I like to think that prices have some relation (however tenuous) to what the item actually cost to produce.
But, this isn't so bad, right? I mean, once I have a digital copy of the book, it'll never go bad, and I can keep it for as long as my backups will last, while it takes up no space. Isn't that better than a real book?
Welcome to the bizarro-world of DRM, where publishers will go to great lengths and spend millions of dollars to make their products less useful. DRM is basically a way to make sure you only access the content enclosed within it in approved ways, which usually means only being able to access it from a single program. So, a book that you could previously read in any of dozens of programs that read PDFs, for instance, can now only be read using Adobe Digital Editions (tm) on an approved computer. Because it would be a Terrible Thing if people could do what they wanted with content that they've purchased, content creators will go to astonishing lengths to prevent DRM schemes from being reverse-engineered, up to and including prosecution under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (Thanks, Bill Clinton!)
So, back to my quest to legally purchase an ebook. There are multiple formats for ebooks, and naturally, all of them are completely incompatible with each other. Some online bookstores only allow you to purchase books in a single format, but ebooks.com is particularly enlightened, as they allow you to choose from three formats. There's a PDF version (with DRM), a Mobipocket version (with DRM), and a Microsoft Reader version (with DRM). Care to guess which version will work properly with my ebook reader?
The correct answer, unfortunately, is D. None of the above. Since ebooks.com secretly hates their customers, they never actually mention this, of course; I'm expected to infer it from their careful omission of standalone ebook readers from their help pages on compatibility. Now, at this point I have a few options. I could pirate the book, of course - this is illegal, but it has the distinct advantage of actually working. I could also purchase it legally, and then remove the DRM - this is extremely illegal, not guaranteed to work, and they are constantly changing DRM schemes to make this difficult. Somebody will manage it (where do you think pirates get their ebooks from originally?) but I might not.
Piracy has several other advantages. The file I would end up with is way more useful than a legally purchased one - I can use it on any computer or device, convert it to any format, make as many copies as I want, and be assured that it won't suddenly stop working at some point in the future, for no reason at all. Compared to a non-DRMed ebook, a DRMed ebook is basically worthless.
So let's review: Without DRM, I could get a pirated copy of the book. With DRM, I can still get a pirated copy of the book, and I have a compelling reason to. I honestly cannot come up with any reasoning that could possibly explain publishers' attitudes to ebook DRM. They have taken an entirely new medium, one with incredible potential, and managed to make it so much less useful than what already exists that nobody even wants it anymore. It's like they are determined to fail at all costs. (And if you ever happen to see somebody tell me that ebooks are a bad idea because look, people aren't buying them, and you see me go into a spitting rage, well, now you'll understand why.)