The Digital Ownership Illusion

Welcome to Nothing

Microsoft recently announced they are shutting down their ebook store. Which means that anyone who purchased books will lose access to them on July 1st, although the company has promised refunds.

For most people that likely means nothing, since they probably didn’t even know Microsoft was in the digital book business in the first place. But the closing does provide yet another reminder that we probably don’t own the digital media in our collections.

I think for most people it’s pretty clear that media streaming services like Netflix and Spotify and software like Adobe’s Creative Cloud are only rental agreements. After all, you get a monthly bill with access to everything available. And another stark reminder on those relatively rare occasions when they are offline.

However, it’s not as obvious when you click the “Buy” button for something digital at a so-called store like Amazon or iTunes.

Those files may be sitting on your device but they also come with a software tether back to the company, commonly known as “digital right management” (DRM). Unlike a physical book or DVD, the code prevents you from making a copy of it1, loaning it to your friend, or selling it at your next yard sale.

That means you only “own” that ebook, movie, or TV show as long as the vendor allows. If, for some reason, they (or the copyright owner) removes it from their catalog, or the store closes entirely, your ability to use the media vanishes.

All of which is not to say you shouldn’t “buy” any digital media. Just understand that what you’re actually getting is a long term lease that can be revoked at any time.


Unlike the Microsoft ebook store, this hotel probably reopened after winter was done.

1. Most DVDs also come with DRM code that’s supposed to prevent copying. However, there is plenty of software available that will easily bypass those locks. It’s legal for personal use. Not so much for loaning or gifting the files.

It’s a Simple Request

Although in the past I’ve had plenty of concerns about ebooks sold by Amazon and others, I’m now hooked on them and will likely not be buying paper versions anymore.

From day 1, reading materials on my iPad has been a great experience, and I’m increasingly avoiding paper and using it for quick access to all kinds of files, work-related or not.

But up until a few weeks ago I’d only bought one commercial title from an online book store (mostly out of curiosity), despite downloading dozens of sample chapters.

So what changed?

Someone created a dirt simple way* to remove the DRM from Kindle and other ebook formats.

It’s not that I was holding out so I can post copies on the torrents or start selling them out of the back of my virtual car.

I simply want to be able to easily give a book to a friend when I’m finished with it, or loan it to a family member.

The same ability, the same rights, I’ve always had when it comes to items that I purchase for my non-digital library, including video and audio.

I’m not asking for much, am I?


* The link goes to a Mac-only solution. A slightly less dirt simple method for Windows users is here.  And no one seems to have created a way to remove DRM from files sold in Apple’s iBook store so they will still be getting none of my business.

Amazon Selleth… and Amazon Taketh Away

Another reason to be wary of Amazon’s digital books – or any other media that comes with DRM strings attached.

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for–thought they owned.

But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

Producers of video content would love to exercise this kind of control of your television and DVR through government-mandated schemes like the broadcast flag.

That’s One (Slighly Less) Ugly Shuffle

Update, later that evening…

One of the problems of going off half-cocked with an early morning breakfast rant is that you could be wrong.  And it seems I am with this one.

The folks at Boing, Boing actually talked to someone at Apple who told them the report that triggered this messy post was incorrect. There is no circuitry in the new Shuffle blocking the use of third-party headphone controllers.

The final line about DRM, however, stands as written.

With multiple Mac, iPods, and others of their products around house, I admit to being a big Apple fan.

But not when they do crap like this.

Even as it attacks DRM on music, Apple is continuing to add more DRM to its own hardware (we recently documented all of Apple’s various hardware DRM restrictions). The latest example is the new iPod Shuffle. According to the careful reviewers at iLounge, third-party headphone makers will have to use yet-another Apple “authentication chip” if they want to interoperate with the new Shuffle.

I wasn’t planning on getting a new Shuffle anyway, but this stupidity would certainly kill the deal if I was.

DRM is ugly no matter how much classy design you wrap around it.

Second Hand Media

Back in the pre-digital age, if I bought a record, video tape, or book, it came with the legal right to sell or give it to someone if I chose to.

This is known as the “first-sale” doctrine and was first recognized by the US Supreme Court one hundred years ago. In 1976 the concept was written into copyright law.

Fast forward to 2009 and consider the same situation with digital media.

Do you have the same “first-sale” rights for a music download, video file, or audio book? What about software, a medium which certainly had no equivalent to the formats considered by the Court or Congress?

The ease with which digital copies can be produced adds many new layers to the concept of media “ownership”. Do you still own that music download or are you only leasing it?

DRM, the effort by producers to lock the files, and the DMCA, which makes it illegal to break those locks, only makes things more complicated.

Ars Technica has a good overview of the issues involved in bringing copyright into the digital age but don’t read the article looking for answers to the many questions.

That’s going to require some major revisions to copyright law and the concept of “first-sale” in the very near future.