Disappearing eBooks show the pitfalls of digital rights

Laura Marlane


If you purchased eBooks from Microsoft's now defunct eBook platform, I'm sorry to tell you, your books are no longer available. Last month, all content in the Microsoft online bookstore was removed and the books that users purchased became inaccessible.

While customers have been refunded their purchase prices, the act of erasing content doesn't sit well with users because, as author and journalist Cory Doctorow said, "When I was a bookseller, nothing I could do would result in your losing the book that I sold you. If I regretted selling you a book, I didn't get to break into your house and steal it, even if I left you a cash refund for the price you paid."

So, how is it acceptable for Microsoft to remove paid-for content from people's personal devices? Microsoft (and many other vendors) uses Digital Rights Management (DRM), which is embedded code used as a way to provide copyright protection for digital products. Unfortunately, DRM also radically restricts a buyer's use of the product they purchased. In some instances, they may be able to loan it to someone, make notes or mark it up, but lose that ability and all of their work if the title is removed from the device. Products with DRM attached also require the use of DRM servers on the vendor side to manage all of that content and monitor its use. Once Microsoft shut off its DRM servers in early July, all the books people had purchased disappeared from their devices.

When you buy a song from iTunes, an eBook from Amazon, or a cool weapon for your online game, you don't really own it — you've only purchased a license to access it. Not only that, but the vendor can remove it according to whatever conditions they've defined in the licensing agreement.

This is also true for libraries purchasing digital content, but with even more restrictive terms of use. The books you find on Libby (Omaha Public Library's OverDrive app for reading and listening to digital books) are purchased for limited use, with the majority allowing for a set number of times it can be checked out before the license expires and the library must repurchase the title. Furthermore, the cost for libraries to purchase digital books is more expensive than it is for the regular shopper, and publishers continue to increase prices and make it more onerous to obtain — at times holding back new titles for months before libraries may purchase them, making it challenging for libraries to get new titles to patrons in a timely fashion.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is an organization advocating for better access and "working together to eliminate DRM as a threat to innovation in media, the privacy of readers, and freedom for computer users." Regarding Microsoft's disappearing books, William John Sullivan, executive director of the FSF 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."

Planned obsolescence and a lack of ownership and purchasing power is not a consumer model many people are happy about, but seems to be one that we're stuck with for the moment, making your input on the types of materials you want from your public library more important than ever. Your feedback helps us to make decisions about how to best allocate funding across a variety of platforms. As the process for acquiring and accessing digital information continues to evolve, so will your library to ensure that information remains available to everyone.

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