DRM Fail: Do you own your books and games?

Is DRM really worth getting worked up about? Yes, it can be a bit inconvenient but are digital rights campaigners really just blowing hot air? Recent events suggest that they may have a point and might make you reconsider your next online purchase.

Much has been written about the pro and cons of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Some copyright holders like it because it protects their intellectual property and many users of that intellectual property – readers, listeners, gamers and viewer – dislike it because it adds a layer of hassle to their enjoyment.

kindle2DRM adds an extra step to consuming digital content. Usually that step is invisible to the consumer and is handled in the background by whatever device you are using to consume that content. For the most part, though, DRM remains a niche concern.

Most people are quite happy to buy a DVD to play in their DVD player, buy and read books on their Kindle or play Xbox games on their Xbox and just leave it at that. The copyright holders get a sense of protecting their works from piracy and things just sort of work. (This protection is likely illusory – serious pirates have no compunction about breaking open DRM, which is usually a trivial process.)

Occasionally, a glitch occurs which exposes the DRM process – the authentication server goes down or your device can’t connect to it because you don’t have an internet connection, or perhaps a bug in the DRM software renders a game unplayable. Then it becomes more of an irritation and those affected begin to wonder why a company’s desire to stop piracy seems to take precedence over their ability to use the goods they have paid for.

Other objections come from that small percentage of people who wish to format shift – buying a film, tune or book in one format and converting it to view, listen to or read on a different device. This is something of a legal grey area in the UK. Format shifting for personal use is not technically against the law, but the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents act does make it illegal to sell or publish tools to strip DRM protection from protected data in order to do so.

There is however another reason to object to DRM and it is one that has been highlighted by a recent case involving the Amazon Kindle. When a file is locked with DRM, it remains to some degree in the control of the copyright holder. They decide where you can use it and how. They might even be able to prevent you from using it at all.

A Norwegian woman owner, Linn, had a Kindle stuffed full of legally-purchased ebooks. Then, one day, she turned her Kindle on to find that all the books had vanished. Suspecting a software bug or hardware failure she emailed Amazon customer support and received the following reply.

Dear Linn [last name],

My name is Michael Murphy and I represent Executive Customer Relations within Amazon.co.uk. One of our mandates is to address the most acute account and order problems, and in this capacity your account and orders have been brought to my attention.

We have found your account is directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies. As such, your Amazon.co.uk account has been closed and any open orders have been canceled.

Per our Conditions of Use which state in part: Amazon.co.uk and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.

Please know that any attempt to open a new account will meet with the same action.

You may direct any questions to me at resolution-uk@amazon.co.uk.

Thank you for your attention to this email.


Michael Murphy
Executive Customer Relations

Linn claims that she had no other Amazon account and to her knowledge had not violated any of Amazon’s policies. Further inquiries resulted in her being told that her account closure was permanent and that “Any subsequent accounts that are opened will be closed as well.

kindle1Amazon has so far refused to enter any further correspondence relating to Linn’s account and all the books that she paid for are still gone. These were books that had been purchased legally from Amazon’s online store.

If you bought a physical book from a bookshop then when you take it home you are free to keep it on a bookshelf or on your bedside table. You can carry it in your work bag or keep it in a pile next to the toilet if that floats your boat. It is yours to do with as you please.

When you buy a book protected with DRM however you can only use it on a device that supports that type of copy protection. In the case of the Kindle, this means keeping it on a device with an open internet connection and a built-in back door that will let Amazon take it away again.

This is enshrined in the Kindle T&Cs: “Your rights under this Agreement will automatically terminate if you fail to comply with any term of this Agreement. In case of such termination, you must cease all use of the Kindle Store and the Kindle Content, and Amazon may immediately revoke your access to the Kindle Store and the Kindle Content without refund of any fees.”

It may be that Amazon is correct in its assumption and Linn really has been running a second account linked in some way with abuse of their policies. This is beside the point. What is important is that under Amazon’s policies, enforced by DRM, you don’t own your books. You merely rent them until Amazon decides otherwise.

This does not just apply to Amazon of course. Whenever a company locks digital information with DRM you are relying on the to allow you access to it. Even if you comply with their terms and conditions to the letter, are you sure that your purchase will remain usable if the copyright holders should go out of business?

Something to bear in mind when doing your Christmas shopping, perhaps.

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