Microsoft’s Ebook Apocalypse Shows the Dark Side of DRM


Your iTunes movies, your Kindle books—they’re not really yours. You don’t own them. You’ve just bought a license that allows you to access them, one that can be revoked at any time. And while a handful of incidents have brought that reality into sharp relief over the years, none has quite the punch of Microsoft disappearing every single ebook from every one of its customers.

Microsoft made the announcement in April that it would shutter the Microsoft Store’s books section for good. The company had made its foray into ebooks in 2017, as part of a Windows 10 Creators Update that sought to round out the software available to its Surface line. Relegated to Microsoft’s Edge browser, the digital bookstore never took off. As of April 2, it halted all ebook sales. And starting as soon as this week, it’s going to remove all purchased books from the libraries of those who bought them.

Other companies have pulled a similar trick in smaller doses. Amazon, overcome by a fit of irony in 2009, memorably vanished copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles. The year before that, Walmart shut down its own ill-fated MP3 store, at first suggesting burn their purchases onto CDs to salvage them before offering a download solution. But this is not a tactical strike. There is no backup plan. This is The Langoliers. And because of digital rights management—the mechanism by which platforms retain control over the digital goods they sell—you have no recourse. Microsoft will refund customers in full for what they paid, plus an extra $25 if they made annotations or mark-ups. But that provides only the coldest comfort.

“On the one hand, at least people aren’t out the money that they paid for these books. But consumers exchange money for goods because they preferred the goods to the money. That’s what happens when you buy something,” says Aaron Perzanowski, professor at the Case Western University School of Law and coauthor of The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy. “I don’t think it’s sufficient to cover the harm that’s been done to consumers.”

“This is why we call DRM media and devices defective by design.”

John Sullivan, Free Software Foundation

Presumably not many people purchased ebooks from Microsoft; that’s why it’s pulling the plug in the first place. But anyone who did now potentially has to go find those same books again on a new platform, buy them again, and maybe even find a new device to read them on. For certain types of readers, particularly lawyers and academics, markups and annotations can be worth far more than $25. And even if none of that were the case, the move rankles on principle alone.

“Once we complete a transaction you can’t just reach into my pocket and take it back, even if you do give me money,” says John Sullivan, executive director of the nonprofit Free Software Foundation. “It’s not respecting the freedom of the individual.”

A Microsoft spokesperson referred WIRED to a Frequently Asked Questions page, which states that “your books will be removed from Microsoft Edge when Microsoft processes the refunds,” in “early July.”

More than anything, Microsoft’s ebook rapture underscores the hidden dangers of the DRM system that underpins most digital purchases. Originally intended as an anti-piracy measure, DRM now functions mostly as a way to lock customers into a given ecosystem, rather than reading or viewing or listening to their purchases wherever they want. It’s a cycle that has persisted for decades, and shows no signs of abating.

“These events keep happening,” says Perzanowski. “When they happen there is a sort of momentary blip of outrage and frustration, and people get upset. And then they go about their lives until the next time, and everyone’s surprised and frustrated all over again but without a sense that something needs to happen to change this power dynamic.”

One reason DRM persists is that it remains relatively hidden from the consumer. Amazon and other ebook stores do offer some non-DRM titles, but don’t make the distinctions clear. And Perzanowski’s research has shown that a “sizable percentage” of shoppers think that clicking “Buy Now” entitles them to similar ownership privileges of digital goods—lending, gift-giving, and more—as their physical counterparts.

There’s also no real enforcement mechanism in place. The Federal Trade Commission has some authority here; it was only after FTC pressure that Walmart decided not to shut its DRM servers down completely back in 2008. But half-measures like Microsoft’s reimbursement plan appears to be enough to stave it off. Congress could act, but it’s the body that codified DRM enforcement in the first place with 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The issue also extends beyond ebooks and movies. Think of Jibo, the $900 robot whose servers are shutting down. Or the Revolv smart home hub that Google acquired and promptly shut down—sparking another FTC inquiry. Even Keurig tried to DRM its coffee pods. It’s bad out there.

“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,” says Sullivan. “This is still the prevalent way of distributing media. That companies still pull the plug is still surprising and frustrating.”

At least Microsoft can afford to pay off its impacted customers. The next time a platform folds—and takes its ecosystem with it—those affected might not be so lucky. Which is maybe the real lesson of Microsoft obliterating its ebooks: This has all happened before, and not nearly enough is being done to stop it from happening again.

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