Orwellian control over users is the reason DRM exists


Recently Amazon Kindle users who purchased copies of George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm lost those novels when the publisher changed their mind about publishing electronic copies via Amazon’s portable reading device known as the “Kindle” (more deservedly known as the Amazon Swindle). These works are in the public domain in Australia but that doesn’t address the real issue at hand—the power DRM gives publishers and what that means in your life.

The publishers and DRM controllers inadvertently did us all a great favor: they gave us a low-cost wake-up call to the reality of DRM. Some of us were wise enough to never get involved with DRM in the first place, so we get an opportunity to educate others about what DRM really means. If you were raised on valuing technical glitz over valuing freedom and community, you may have acquired some DRM-encumbered media or device. You get a chance to think about issues of freedom and power. You can learn what the shift from traditional media really means and how digital media doesn’t have to deny users their freedom.

The underlying theme

What made this possible? How could one’s purchases simply vanish? This never happens with books, so why should it happen with e-Books?

DRM (more appropriately known as “Digital Restrictions Management”) is the key to understanding the loss of freedom and transfer of power. DRM is the technical means whereby a publisher can control what media a computing device has on it, or when a user is permitted to view/read/hear (experience, for short) that media.

This control is permanent for the lifetime of the device. So even after the device and the media are sold to the user, even if the device and media are sold again to another user (at a garage sale, for example), the publisher remains in control. Whatever the computing device is capable of doing, DRM can curtail the reader’s freedom to do that activity.

DRM makes it possible for the publisher to:

  • remove media after the sale
  • enable/disable the ability to experience media based on whatever criteria the publisher deems fit
  • tracking users as they experience their media
  • restore users’ media as they see fit
  • change the terms of a deal at any time for any reason

All of these powers make it clear that when you get DRM-encumbered media you don’t really own the media. You are choosing to let someone else control how, when, and where you can experience that media.

If we combine these traits in certain ways, we grant publishers the power to do things we wouldn’t tolerate for distributors of traditional media. What if Amazon or one of the publishers Amazon works with decides that anyone who wants to read from poor areas of the world shall be denied access to some of their media?

This DRM story is like all the others we’ve seen before, some of which I’ve covered here. But I feel compelled to point out the larger underlying theme of DRM because I think most people will take away the wrong message from this (and all similar) stories.

DRM (digital restrictions management) isn’t about watching a series of anti-consumer actions that may be reversed in time. When Wil Wheaton lost his iTunes tracks after he followed Apple’s directions and “upgraded” his iPod, he concluded that Apple did him a favor by offering to restore his lost tracks up to some limited number of times. He didn’t see the larger underlying transfer of freedom to power: if Apple has the power to restore his tracks, they could take them away too (simply don’t restore all the tracks next time they’re lost). In fact that’s what a promise of N-times restore really means.

DRM is about the loss of freedom for the viewer/reader/user. When you get involved in any DRM scheme you lose the freedom to determine what you may watch, read, or use.

That loss of freedom (which becomes a power for the publisher) doesn’t go away because the publisher changes their mind again and apologizes or sets up some Apple-like scheme to restore your purchased files N more times. The publisher’s power is there to stay and your loss of freedom lasts as long as you use a DRM-encumbered system.

It’s always a good time to ditch DRM schemes, DRM-encumbered media, and devices or software that push you into DRM (any proprietary program falls into this category). Declare your freedom to read, watch, and hear what you want when you want and using the devices and software you want to use.

The future of digital media is what you make it

This episode with the Amazon Swindle isn’t about preferring paper books over electronic books. Digital media doesn’t have to restrict user’s freedoms. DRM schemes are purposefully built to deny users their freedom because thjeir developers are trying to get more money and more control over their users (by the way, money and control are not synonymous, as the DRM story about Major League Baseball shows; when MLB parted ways with their DRM provider MLB made no more money.).

Update (2009-07-29): Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos offers a content-free apology to those he ripped off:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO

Eagle-eyed readers will notice how there’s nothing in this apology to prevent Amazon.com from modifying someone’s Kindle content without their permission. Like every device that has DRM, the Kindle was designed to give publishers and distributors the power to do things on customer’s devices without customer consent. What happened here was not the result of misfortune. Policy won’t stop this from happening again, a fully free software Kindle would prevent this from happening again. Amazon.com should release all Kindle software under a free software license (I suggest the AGPL version 3 or later) and allow their customers to install and run completely free software Kindles. This would allow hackers to remove the DRM, distribute the improved Kindle software, and let Kindle users do business with anyone to get new texts. Until this happens, a Kindle remains a Swindle. In light of how Amazon.com treats their customers, it’s wise to entirely avoid Amazon.com.