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Cory Doctorow: DRM Broke Its Promise

Via Locus Online:

The problem with markets is that selling things is inefficient. There are so many people who don’t need the thing, just a momentary use of the thing: the right to read a book today, but not to own it forever; to use a snatch of a song as a ringtone, but not to put it in your music library; to pull a video clip out of a movie to use in your student project, without having to buy the movie.

Digital, the priesthood told us, could make all these markets – and more – a reality! Thanks to a technology called “Digital Rights Management,” sellers and buyers could negotiate a subset of rights and a reduced payment for same. In the same way that the humble mortgage could be spun out into a million “products” that investors could buy in the form of complex financial instruments, we could turn the unitary book into a thousand sub-books: the book you can only read on Wednesdays, the book you can only read while on an airplane, the book you can only read after the sun sets.

That’s not what we got, of course.

Today, four of the five big publishers sell all their books with DRM (the exception is Macmillan, whose Tor science fiction and fantasy imprint is DRM-free). These ebooks are like books, except that they are locked to the readers approved by the vendor who sold them to you (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.) and they can’t be given away or re-sold, and have little or no capacity for lending them out. In other words, ebooks are like regular books, only they do less.

Despite the fact that they do less, they don’t cost less. The restricted ebooks sold by Tor’s competitors – books that can’t be used with the reader of your choice, or sold, or lent, or given away – cost just the same as Tor’s unrestricted books.


The established religion of markets once told us that we must abandon the idea of owning things, that this was an old fashioned idea from the world of grubby atoms. In the futuristic digital realm, no one would own things, we would only license them, and thus be relieved of the terrible burden of ownership.

They were telling the truth. We don’t own things anymore. This summer, Microsoft shut down its ebook store, and in so doing, deactivated its DRM servers, rendering every book the company had sold inert, unreadable. To make up for this, Microsoft sent refunds to the custom­ers it could find, but obviously this is a poor replacement for the books themselves. When I was a bookseller in Toronto, noth­ing that happened would ever result in me breaking into your house to take back the books I’d sold you, and if I did, the fact that I left you a refund wouldn’t have made up for the theft. Not all the books Microsoft is confiscating are even for sale any lon­ger, and some of the people whose books they’re stealing made extensive annotations that will go up in smoke.

What’s more, this isn’t even the first time an electronic bookseller has done this.


There’s a name for societies where a small elite own property and everyone else rents that prop­erty from them: it’s called feudalism. DRM never delivered a world of flexible consumer choice, but it was never supposed to. Instead, twenty years on, DRM is revealed to be exactly what we feared: an oligarchic gambit to end property ownership for the people, who become tenants in the fields of greedy, confiscatory tech and media companies, whose in­ventiveness is not devoted to marvelous new market propositions, but, rather, to new ways to coerce us into spending more for less.

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