Mostly it’s technogeeks like us who get passionate about file format issues—Word vs. Open Office, Latin-1 vs. Unicode, unrestricted PDF vs. PDF/A. But when issues like digital rights management (DRM) come in, a lot more people will weigh in. This week quite a lot of attention has come to the format in which John Scalzi’s new novel, Redshirts, was issued. Scalzi wrote in his blog:
As noted in the FAQ I just put up, Redshirts is going to be released as an eBook here in the US without digital rights management software (DRM), meaning what when you buy it you can pretty much do what you want with it. Tor, my publisher, announced that all their eBooks would be released DRM-free by the end of July; I support this and asked Redshirts be released DRM-free from release date, so I think it might be the first official DRM-free release from Tor, which is in itself the first major publisher imprint to forgo DRM. In that way, Redshirts is a bit of a canary in a coal mine for major publishers.
However, some things went wrong. Several e-book sale sites issued Redshirts in DRM, against his express wishes. Tor and Macmillan quickly went after those sites, and most or all of them have either dropped the book or switched to offering it DRM-free.
In April Scalzi wrote: “As an author, I haven’t seen any particular advantage to DRM-laden eBooks; DRM hasn’t stopped my books from being out there on the dark side of the Internet. Meanwhile, the people who do spend money to support me and my writing have been penalized for playing by the rules.”
From the standpoint of preservation, the big problem with DRM e-books is that they will inevitably become unreadable in not too many years. Publishers will switch to new, incompatible DRM schemes or completely drop support for their older e-books. They can’t keep actively supporting old technology forever. I have no objection to it for enforcing limited access such as library loans, but if you buy a product with DRM, you’re really just leasing it for an unknown period of time.
I’ll be ordering the book shortly, and I’m waiting for the day when we can say of DRM in books for sale: “It’s dead, Jim.”
When ebooks die
Microsoft’s eBook Store is closing. According to the announcement, “starting July 2019 your ebooks will no longer be available to read, but you’ll get a full refund for all book purchases.” This shows a basic truth about DRM book purchases: you don’t actually own your copy. You can use it only as long as the provider supports it. It was honest of Microsoft to refund all “purchases,” but digital oblivion eventually awaits all DRM-protected materials.
Andy Ihnatko once told me that DRM is safe because “Amazon will be around forever.” It won’t. The fact that a company as big and stable as Microsoft is abandoning support for its DRM-protected products reminds us that all such products exist only as long as the provider has sufficient motivation and ability. It’s questionable whether Amazon’s protected ebooks from today will be readable in 2050, let alone “forever.”
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Tagged DRM, ebooks, Microsoft