Picture this. You go to the bookstore, browse the shelves, plunk down some cash on the latest hardcover you’ve been wanting to read, and head home, looking forward to some quality time on the back deck.
There’s a knock on your door, and the book police walk in, take the book, and leave. You run behind them, frantically waving the receipt and yelling “…but, but, I bought it… I paid for it … It’s mine!”
Wouldn’t happen with print books, of course. That’s ridiculous. But substitute “ebook” for “hardcover” and “Microsoft licensing agreement” for “book police,” and things start to get crazy.
“Microsoft made the announcement in April that it would shutter the Microsoft Store’s books section for good,” writes Brian Barrett in Wired. “The company had made its foray into ebooks in 2017, as part of a Windows 10 Creators Update that sought to round out the software available to its Surface line. Relegated to Microsoft’s Edge browser, the digital bookstore never took off. As of April 2, it halted all ebook sales. And starting as soon as this week, it’s going to remove all purchased books from the libraries of those who bought them.”
It’s not the first time we’re talking about this. Five years ago Amazon made it clear you don’t own your Kindle books, and they maintained the right to “refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.”
Barrett reminds us it happened before that, too.
“Amazon, overcome by a fit of irony in 2009, memorably vanished copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles,” he writes. “The year before that, Walmart shut down its own ill-fated MP3 store, at first suggesting customers burn their purchases onto CDs to salvage them before offering a download solution.”
Regardless of Microsoft agreeing to reimburse the purchase price of re-absorbed ebooks (plus $25 if you made any notes or digital markup), there’s a far greater problem here.
“Once we complete a transaction you can’t just reach into my pocket and take it back, even if you do give me money,” says John Sullivan, executive director of the nonprofit Free Software Foundation, quoted in Barrett’s piece. “It’s not respecting the freedom of the individual.”
Digital rights management (DRM) exists largely to protect the content publishers from piracy; it’s evolved into a way to keep customers on a specific platform to access their property. Many in the industry are saying DRM is terrifically broken and often abused.
“The issue also extends beyond ebooks and movies. Think of Jibo, the $900 robot whose servers are shutting down,” Barrett continues. “Or the Revolv smart-home hub that Google acquired and promptly shut down—sparking another FTC inquiry. Even Keurig tried to DRM its coffee pods. It’s bad out there.”
Are your book and movie purchases safe? Can you access them any time you want? Are you sure?
It’s a mess out there; digital rights management is important for a lot of reasons; authors and publishers need some assurance that their original work is safe from piracy. But where do consumers and their rights fit in?
As more of our media lives online, situations like the Microsoft ebook announcement will become more common. Maybe it’s time to start cashing in our digital chips and going back to print books, CDs and video tapes …