DRM: still defective by design

Image: Microsoft e-book store on EdgeMicrosoft’s withdrawal of purchased books shows just how broken Digital Rights Management always was – DRM: still defective by design.

Microsoft announced in April that it was closing the Microsoft Store’s e-books section.

The short-lived foray into e-books began in 2017 as part of the Windows 10 Creators Update. With the closure of the store, Microsoft also set a date this month (July) by which it would remove all purchased books from the libraries of those who bought them. The how and the why? Digital Rights Management – DRM.

DRM is the technical component of encryption first introduced late in the ’90’s as a measure to prevent piracy of media files containing music and video. DRM was extended to e-books when that market emerged. DRM works by issuing a decryption key and/or dialling home to the store that issued the media file to make sure that only the person who bought it has the right to play or display it.

What it effectively means is that none of the DRM’ed media that you bought is owned by you. It’s yours on a long-term lease for as long as the server that checks the digital rights keys is operating.

The way that Microsoft deployed DRM also gives it the ability to delete media when it withdraws the rights licence. This is not the only instance. As far back as 2009, Amazon created a storm by removing George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles after a row with the Orwell estate. Who’s the Big Brother now?

Walmart closed its’ MP3 store suggesting customers burn their music onto CD before it disappeared. How very 1998. Walmart later offered a download option.

The customer’s recourse? There is none. The customer doesn’t own the content. They don’t even own the media – the bits written to disk or the Cloud. And that’s in the Terms and Conditions. This was all prophesied in 1998 at the time the 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act was signed into law by the US Congress at the behest of the US music and movie industries.

And while it was one method against content piracy (which largely failed), DRM more effectively became a lock-in mechanism to trap customers within specific vendor’s content eco-systems. Apple’s iTunes walled-garden still depends on it.

Microsoft customers will get a refund to the purchase value of their e-book library. They won’t get the contents in any other format. If you annotated any of your e-books, Microsoft will give you $25 compensation – but you still lose your annotations along with the copy. So much for that research project if you’re a researcher or an academic. $25? Really?

Microsoft has cut and run, throwing some dollar bills over its’ shoulder at the angry mob with pitchforks in the hope it can skedaddle with least damage done, leaving customers to go buy the content again in another format, possibly on another device, possibly with different DRM in place from someone else. A delightful prospect.

As far back as 2009, John Sullivan of the Free Software Foundation said “This is why we call DRM media and devices defective by design, or broken from the beginning. There’s self-destruction built into the whole concept.” Sullivan compared it to a vendor reaching into your pocket and taking back the goods you just paid for, whether or not it leaves a refund and a discretionary ‘good will’ payment that it decides on.

The surprise is not that Microsoft has closed an entire content ecosystem. The surprise is this has happened before, repeatedly; it’s been sanctioned by legislators in the US and EU; corporations set their own terms of entry and withdrawal, it violates all the normal standards of commerce and customers have no effective recourse in law, assuming they even understood the terms of non-ownership in the first place. It won’t be a surprise when it happens again.

Software companies have been doing this for decades with license keys and activation, but we mostly understand the rental terms for software and the pros and cons of the support that goes with it. DRM is being applied anywhere that vendors think they can get away with it – from domestic robots to home-hubs.

Our advice? Stay out of any ecosystem that deploys DRM. After all, unless you leave it on a train or get pick-pocketed on the platform, you don’t get this problem with a paperback book.