DRM: A Petition To Unlock E-Books

This is a petition.

It asks the White House to take a position on how consumers get to interact with their e-books. This is in response to the White House coming out in favor of allowing consumers the ability to unlock their own mobile devices. The petition does not demand or incur some kind of an automagic fix. It merely asks that the White House will take a favorable position on the issue.

This is the text of the petition:

The White House recently came out in favor of allowing consumers to unlock their own cellular telephones. We are asking the White House to apply the same laws and provisions to ebooks.

The purchase of a book, whether online or not, is a purchase, not a license. Digital books should be legal to read on any device that supports standard text files. Legally purchased digital books should not self-destruct, expire or disapper [sic], except under conditions of damage or obsalescence [sic]. Within reasonable limits, book purchasers have the right to lend or give books to friends, charitable organizations and libraries. Finally, libraries should be permitted to lend ebooks under the same rules as physical books.

We ask the Obama Administration to champion the rights of readers to own their ebooks.

I am not a fan of DRM.

It restricts competition in the e-book space. It throttles readers. It helps ensure that readers never own their content but rather, license, or in a sense “rent” it. Imagine buying a physical book and being told you can only read it in a certain room or at a certain point of day and that any point the bookstore owner can come tromping into your house and make changes to the book or snatch it out of your hands and return it to the store without even explaining himself.

DRM by itself is not a great evil, but its implementation is often a terrible thing. (On the software side, look no further than yesterday’s release of Simcity, whose DRM is so inept it’s making it hard for users to even play the game they just bought in a flurry of release-day excitement. Many professional reviewers have had to lower their originally glowing reviews, and now the game is getting savaged in the open marketplace by pissed-off users.)

I saw a comment on Facebook that said this would just make it easier for pirates.

Here’s the thing: pirates aren’t particularly hampered by DRM.

They know how to get rid of it.

Its very existence is an excuse for them to try.

Further, this means that if you or I want to simply crack the DRM and use the e-book as we’d like to, it means we’re going to be labeled as pirates. Which is not particularly endearing.

DRM encourages piracy.

As I’ve said in the past, DRM is the Empire’s tool. And I’m Leia telling Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

DRM: The Devil’s Restrictive Manacles. Or something. Shut up.

Let’s allow readers the freedom to control their content. It needs a shitload of signatures in the span of a single month, and the only way that happens is if we fling it about wildly and widely.

Please sign and spread the petition.

I don’t know that it’ll change shit, but you never really know until it’s done.

(Thanks to @nvbinder for setting up the petition.)

42 responses to “DRM: A Petition To Unlock E-Books”

  1. Thanks for bring this to our attention Chuck. I agree; DRM tends to encourage piracy. Things used to be even more ridiculous. I use a program called Logic Pro to record my music. It’s an expensive program ($200. now versus $1000. just a few years ago). Anyway, in order to authorize the old version and run it, you needed a usb dongle plugged into your computer at all times in order for the program to work. If you lost your dongle, you were fucked. I hate losing my dongle.

    • Sounds like a personal problem, John. 😉

      Seriously, though, I agree completely about DRM. I can see the objections that will be used, although I won’t enumerate them. I will only say: “I * bought the * thing, get out of my * face” ( * = gratuitous profanity in order to fit in on this site 🙂 )

  2. “Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.” Alpha Centauri, “The Planetary Datalinks” A bit melodramatic maybe, but more and more, people are trying to restrict what you do with what you “buy,” assuming “buy” is the right word. At one point, I loved the idea of a digital book, but more and more, I am going back to the physical copies. I may not be able to carry a library with me, but at least I know my book will be there when I want to read it (assuming it hasn’t been stolen by ninja gnomes when I was looking). Off to sign a petition… tally-ho!!!!!!

  3. I have looked at the you tube guides to show you how to crack the DRM for e-books, why because I bought it its mine and if I want to put it on 4 different e-readers i should be able to. (yea I actually own 4 e-readers) I work in the oilfield I bought the e-reader so I could carry 6oz & 2000 books vs. 20lbs and 14 books. When your luggage weight restrictions are 40 lbs, and 1/2 of it is books to get your through the 14 to 21 days a t camp.

    DRM’s existence does promote hacking code & piracy. I know I have been seriously tempted

  4. Thanks for pointing this out, Chuck. I signed the petition and promoted it on my Facebook feed. I agree totally with you that DRM encourages piracy. Heck, whenever I have given my writing away for free, it actually increased my sales, so I’m not sure what DRM is really achieving.

  5. I’ve never understood DRM, either. To me, it conceptually feels like media which magically disappears at random times. ‘Oh, shit. I was reading that book in the living room, but when I try to in the kitchen, the words go away!’ Same logic applied to music. ‘Hey, there’s nothing but silence!’ Just doesn’t compute.

    You’re also spot-on about how it actually encourages piracy. Sadly, that’s not the popular opinion. Once again, breaking it down logically, it’s easy to see (after a bit of headwork) why it actually is the case. But, y’know … legislators and logic ….


  6. I really question though whether abandoning the whole license model as is petitioned for is really the answer. I think the license model fits the digital age quite well. I don’t think the idea of both “owning” the book while still having “reasonable restrictions” on lending the book really works. If there is any kind of restriction, even “reasonable restrictions,” then its still a license and people should just accept it for what it is.

    On the other hand, if there are not reasonable restrictions, then people will redistribute the book however damn well they please. If they can loan to one person at time, why not 50 people at a time. If they can sell/re-gift the book to one person, why not 50 people.

    Copyright law would technically have sway in these cases, but it would not prevent a single copy being sold over and over again. “Owning” the book means the right to resell, the right to sell absolute perfect digital copies of the same book over and over and over again. “Used” e-book stores will spring up all over the place, selling the same e-book over and over again with none of it going to the author. Even if there were some ways to track legitimate copies, it would then turn into a virtual rental. You buy the used ebook for 50 cents, and when you are done you return it to the big online superstore for a 25 cent credit on your next book.

    If you truly “own” the book, you should be able to rent the book to anybody you want anyway, and a big online superstore should be able to rent the book to as many people as they want to.

    But the moment you start talking “reasonable restrictions”, you are talking licensing.

    I think education is the key, but talking about how it’s “ownership” and “not a license” is mis-education.

    • “On the other hand, if there are not reasonable restrictions, then people will redistribute the book however damn well they please. If they can loan to one person at time, why not 50 people at a time. If they can sell/re-gift the book to one person, why not 50 people.”

      This is called “book piracy,” and it already happens.

      Consider, if you will, the humble MP3.

      I buy music.

      I own all that music.

      I have MP3s I bought ten years ago.

      I can move them to any device. To any computer. I can back them up. Copy them. Burn them. I can broadcast them to multiple other devices without copying.

      I have a ton of freedom with my audio files.

      I have no such freedom with many of my e-books. Some of them, yes — the DRM-free ones, which many publishers already sell (including my own publisher, Angry Robot).

      — c.

      • I just think that “DRM-free” and “not a license” are different issues, and I personally think it detracts from the case against DRM to try and treat them as one and the same as the petitioner seems to be doing. I think it can lead to a bigger can of worms in the long run.

      • To be frank, there’s a big, big push from artists to ditch DRM and go full open-source. Publishers are starting to listen – but, of course, like anything, plenty are asshats, and progress is always slow. But with the direction in which we’re heading, we could be DRM-free by 2015. That’s the current projection ‘on the street’.

  7. I’m in. Unfortunately, this fucks Amazon’s e-book business model, so count on them fighting anything like this tooth and nail. If you remove DRM, the mythical Amazon gravy train that self-publishers rave about goes up in a puff of smoke overnight.

    Not because the books are copyable–but because Amazon’s business model *requires DRM*.

    • That gravy train is already giving itself up. Further, I don’t think it necessarily fucks them — Amazon is still a major distributor of e-books and this won’t change that one bit. I can technically buy MOBI Kindle files from other sellers (hell, I sell them myself) — but Amazon will still have the ability to upload right to a device much the same way iTunes does to, say, your iPad.

      — c.

  8. But if Amazon loses DRM, it loses 99% of the value proposition for the Kindle. I’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth. The value of the Kindle isn’t that it’s a convenient e-reader–it’s that Amazon controls all of its content and has a direct, mandatory pipeline to each consumer. That’s why Amazon pushes Prime harder than a streetcorner drug dealer.

  9. I am the creator of the petition. I realize that not everyone will agree with the details, but your signature could still make a difference in shining a brighter light on this issue.

    Am I inappropriately conflating DRM and licensing? Maybe. DRM is how the license agreement is enforced. I know they’re not the same thing, but they’re linked, and the philosophical concept of licensing is what makes aggressive, preemptive enforcement seem OK. Copyright places many “reasonable limitations” on what you can do with the physical books that you own. But you still own them. And with those limitations comes rights to your own property: the right to give it to a friend, throw it away, read it as many times as you want, to move it from place to place,

    The idea that a stranger could come in to your home or library and deface or destroy books is repellent to almost everyone. Public library books that destroyed themselves if used “too much” or “inappropriately,” would be an Orwellian nightmare that no American would tolerate. There would be a public outcry, as there is any time books are burned in the United States. HarperCollins has been selling such items for nearly two years.

    But because they’re ebooks, suddenly the rules are different? I simply don’t buy that.

    There is a way come to an amicable agreement without ruining the book business or changing the deal between book buyers and publishers. There are ways for publishers to protect their revenues without price-gouging or asserting a tremendous level of control over individual books.

    Incidentally, I am a writer in addition to being a librarian. I want publishers and the book market to be healthy and vibrant–it’s bread on my table too. I am very strongly against book theft. I know publishers are nervous about the future. So am I. But innovation, quality, creativity and novelty are the only long-term solution to declining publishing revenues. And these are costly but essentially infinite resources. Instead of figuring out how to control and hobble books, maybe publishers should be focusing on identifying and developing talent, sorting the cream from the dross, and helping all writers reach global audiences.

    Incidentally a loosening of DRM would not necessarily be harmful. People are still making billions off Sherlock Holmes, and that’s in the public domain. Readers will happily open their pocketbooks for the newest James Patterson or Stephen King (or whoever) until the end of history. That’s why used bookstores have never been a real threat to the book business, even though paper can last hundreds of years with proper care.

    Anyway, I know I have strong opinions on this issue and not everyone will agree with me on the specifics. But I think we can agree that this debate needs to be more public than it is, and that a word from the White House could do a lot to advance the issue. Thanks for the smart comments here, both pro and con, and thanks to Mr. Wendig for letting me get on my soapbox with a lengthy comment. If anybody wants to talk more, shoot me an email nvbinder@gmail.com or get me on twitter @nvbinder.


    P.S. E-readers, as in the actual hardware, are a loss leader for Amazon and B&N. Nobody’s making much money off e-ink readers. B&N is this close to dumping the Nook for just this reason (see: http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/rick-newman/2013/02/25/the-outlook-darkens-for-the-barnes–noble-nook). Content is where the money is. The old rules still apply: if you want to be rich, buy (intellectual) property.

    • Hi Natalie,

      Trying to not take up too much of Chuck’s space, but I thought I would make one more comment.

      I think you mean well, but I’m totally opposed to your assertions concerning licensing and cannot support a petition that right off the bat makes the claim “not a license.” I think the licensing model is very important to anyone who creates digital content.

      I don’t think you have fully considered all the ramifications concerning lending, renting, and reselling. Most “reasonable restrictions” you allude to on pbooks tend be imposed by the laws of physics more than anything else.

      I do think consumer safeguards are needed, but I think it is misguided and detrimental to try and claim that the pbook model still works for digital content and grasping at this as some sort of solution. I think educating people on why licensing is needed in the digital age and why the old pbook model is no longer compatible in this domain will work out better for everyone in the long run rather than grasping at these outdated ideas about ownership and rejecting the very idea of a license.

      I think this is actually a much more important issue than DRM, and you and your petition are staking ground in regards to licensing that I think would prove detrimental to writers in the long run.

      • I think we have a strong difference of opinion here, but at the same time we aren’t very far apart. I find the concept of ownership essential–*especially* now. Things are changing so quickly, and publishers are aggressively breaking new ground and establishing new norms. It feels like authors and readers are *both* being left out of important decisions.

        My career is concerned with ensuring that everyone has access to books and information, and with being a good steward of very limited taxpayer dollars. This is beyond the scope of the petition, but what happens to libraries in a world where lending and giving books is illegal or prohibitively difficult? In that world, how do we ensure that all children have access to the thousands of books they need to grow and develop intellectually? If children, teens and the poor have less access to information and literature, how does that affect society? Where does a love for books and reading begin?

        If books become too costly or difficult to use now, then there isn’t going to *be* a book market in 20 years.

        That said, I’m very sensitive to the concerns of content owners and content creators. Maybe there *should* be a type of digital ownership that is different from physical ownership. I left “resale” out of the petition for that reason.

        Copyright law sufficiently protects an author’s right to profit from his or her work. Those rights aren’t contingent on format–you’re still the owner of the intellectual property, no matter what container it’s in. But readers should own the single physical incidence of whatever they bought. These are different *types* of ownership, with different rights, but they are both real ownership. Both concepts appear compatible with the digital revolution without much modification.

        To me a book is a book, and buying something is buying something. If digital resale hurts authors, then so does physical resale, but the lawyers aren’t coming for the used bookstores, public libraries and penny sellers (at least, not today). Culture has a voracious appetite for novelty that will continue to put bread on artists’ tables and cash in their pockets, assuming their work is commercially viable.

        Now if online booksellers want to get rid of the “buy” button and replace it with a “buy a license,” “buy 26 views,” or “rent” button, I would be fine with that. The decision of how to share books is ultimately up to the creator or publisher. But don’t call it ownership if it’s not. That’s another version of “having your cake and eating it too.” In a contract, both sides need to be clear about what, exactly, they’re signing up for.

        Anyway, I know this is a tough one & I’ve already taken up plenty of Mr. Wendig’s hospitality. If you want to chat more in a different venue I’m certainly open to it. I am (somewhat) less concerned with what the deal will ultimately look like than I am with having a larger public dialogue.

        • Like these sorts of things tend to do, ebooks are already moving beyond the DRM paradigm. More often than not, I can get the book I want DRM-free as a download in multiple formats. In the nonfiction world, this isn’t uncommon; in the fiction world, it’ll become that way too. Like the Amanda Palmer talk that Chuck recently commented on, the whole model of how the creator interacts with the “consumer” is changing.

          So–to me, DRM is already partly irrelevant. And the harder any entity tries to enforce it, the faster we move away from it.

  10. I haven’t totally decided how I feel about DRM, but some of the arguments I see against it seem selfish and self-destructive. Isn’t the idea that DRM is pointless because pirates can get around it the same argument that conservatives use against gun registries and waiting periods?

    And you can’t argue that e-books should be treated like regular books and then say that you should be able to buy one copy and download it to multiple e-reading devices. If you were buying a pbook and you wanted a copy at home and a copy at work, how many copies did you have to buy? I don’t think an ebook should be linked to a specific device (which, unlike a pbook, will be upgraded every so often), but linking purchases to a specific account makes sense.

    As I said, I haven’t decided entirely how I feel about DRM, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t argue that ebooks should be treated just like pbooks and then complain that ebooks aren’t being treated like personal digital files — easily copyable and redistributable. If ebooks should be treated like pbooks, then the rules for copying them should be the same, no?

    DRM needs to be fixed, yes, but make sure you know what you’re asking for.

    I completely agree, though, that it’s wrong for Amazon or whoever to reach into your gadget and delete a book that you paid for. That’s an easy line to draw.

  11. I admit to being a tech dinosaur. I do not own a smartphone, or an iPad, or any of the other tech gadgets out there, because I’m a tech dino. So, I do not understand what DRM means. However, the thought of Amazon deleting my soon-to-be self-published book from anyone’s smartwhatever, which they’ve paid for, (the book I mean, although I’m sure they’re paying for the tech gadget as well) I disagree with, totally!!

  12. I’ve never used DRM on my books. I don’t care for DRM, and while I don’t avoid books with DRM, I do tend to buy more books without it.

    There are some niggling bits about the license/ownership thing that were not discussed above.

    Chuck said he has DRM free music, which is great. I do too. And if all ebooks went DRM free, it would not be an issue. I think piracy might even go down; certainly would not go up, as pirates can easily break the DRM anyway. Heck, the average 4th grader can Google “break Kindle DRM” and apply the results. 🙂

    Ownership is another kettle of fish, because ownership implies right of resale.

    I think we’re headed that way anyway (the EU certainly is!). But a little caution might be a good thing, because when ebooks start becoming available for resale, places like Amazon are going to become major “used ebookstores”. They’ll buy back hot ebooks, and resell them for a mild discount, or maybe just set up matching services, but either way they will make a percentage of those sales – while writers and publishers will earn nothing from them.

    The same is sort of true of used books in general. Except used print books get damaged. And have to be shipped. So a lot of users just prefer new. With ebooks, new or used is irrelevant in terms of item quality. Used ebooks don’t degrade.

    So yeah, some caution on the ownership thing is warranted, because if you own it, you can sell it. If you can sell your ebooks, it will generate a huge market for massive used ebookstores (Amazon recently patented a system for selling used ebooks…wonder why that was?). And a big drain on the incomes of most authors and publishers.

  13. *All* ebook “purchases” from Amazon (for example) are license purchases. You never, ever buy a “book” from them, digital or otherwise. You buy a license to view the content of a book, just like you do with every piece of software you buy. Nobody owns software; they own software *licenses*.

    And licenses are separate from DRM. DRM and ownership are related, but not the same thing. All DRM does is ensure that you’re following the terms of the license agreement. There is are plenty of ebook licenses sold *without* DRM. Make sense?

    And here’s a mind-blower for you: you don’t “own” printed books, either. You own a *copy* of the author’s content, with limited rights to what you can do with that copy (you can’t, for example, reprint and sell the content, but you can sell the book at a garage sale). When you buy a printed book, you have limited usage rights. When you buy an ebook license, you have limited (but different) usage rights.

    I’m not in favor of DRM. But though I support the petition, I’ve come to realize that banning it doesn’t really solve anything.

    • In the EU, courts have already ruled that the EULAs claiming you “buy a license, not the product” are invalid for software. STEAM is currently in court about this, and it seems likely they will lose. The result is all US companies selling digital goods in the EU are scrambling to set up methods for users to resell their digital goods.

      The US courts are not moving as fast in that direction, but there IS movement that way. All it will take is a few court cases setting precedent for disallowing that EULA clause, and all those ebooks you “licensed” will suddenly become owned instead.

      I’m not against the idea, mind you…not entirely. But I think there will be significant fallout from it, and I have concerns about how ownership of digital property which the publishers thought would be licensed, not owned, will be implemented.

      • Kevin, I’m fairly certain that the EU hasn’t invalidated software licenses. 100% certain, in fact.

        As far as I know, there’s no “movement” by courts in any country to invalidate the licensing model of software.

        • The ruling: “An author of software cannot oppose the resale of his ‘used’ licences allowing the use of his programs downloaded from the internet”


          And there is trending in that direction in US courts as well. For example, every recent case where a user has been brought before US courts for breaking DRM on digital products *for personal use* has been found in favor of the DRM-breaker. Only in cases where the DRM was broken and the content distributed illegally was the user penalized. That’s different from ownership, of course. But it’s movement in that direction. Also, the EULAs of various social media services say that content on those sites does not belong to the user, and cannot be passed to someone else – but families have consistently won lawsuits to recover such data from a deceased relative’s account, meaning the courts view those EULA terms as invalid and the content as belonging to the user (and therefore, able to be transferred to another person).

          We’re not at the point the EU is yet, but US courts are informed by EU decisions and vice versa. Their ruling – and how it plays out there – will have a huge impact on the ownership of digital property in the US, as well.

          • Yep, but that doesn’t have anything to do with invalidating the license model–all it does is affirm that you can sell a license to another person. In many cases, that’s always been the case.

            I also think you’re confusing “DRM” with “licensing”.

          • Since the entire point of licensing digital content was to prevent resale of those licenses, being able to resell those licenses does indeed pretty much undermine the license model as it was built. A license which is assignable, inheritable, and irrevocable is functionally identical to product ownership.

            With digital products, the difficulties mostly stem from:
            – How to determine if the product sold is a legitimate one, or “extra copies” someone is selling off? Right now, we know everyone selling a “used” copy of Photoshop on Ebay is breaking US law. If it becomes legal to sell of your copy, how do we tell the person selling their one copy to one person apart from the person selling scores of illegal copies to scores of people?

            – For things like books, resale may have a major impact because ebooks do not degrade like print ones do. Many people want a new print copy because they don’t want a worn looking book. But ebooks don’t wear out, meaning one ebook novel might be resold multiple times, to multiple readers, with no income from those sales flowing to the writer. It’s unclear how much of a problem that could become; I suspect it would be much more detrimental to slower writers than to faster ones, but would have a major impact on how books are written. Things like the Starship serial I’ve been writing for a while now would likely see no impact, because readers will be less inclined to wait for a used copy when new episodes are released weekly. Writers producing one work a year or less may see more of a hit. Also, more popular writers might be hit harder than less popular ones, as there would be more used copies circulating.

  14. I’ve already passed the words of this along to some other friends, but I think this may be something that I work on for my writing capstone class after I finish my portfolio. It’s an interesting issue, especially with how purchasing digital information has shifted our conception of what is ownable.

    There is also an article from a rapper/essayist/writer named Dessa from Minneapolis who makes a commentary on the idea of ownership in the digital age through an agricultural connection: http://www.startribune.com/local/yourvoices/165997676.html

  15. Kevin wrote:
    “Since the entire point of licensing digital content was to prevent resale of those licenses, being able to resell those licenses does indeed pretty much undermine the license model as it was built. A license which is assignable, inheritable, and irrevocable is functionally identical to product ownership.”

    Kevin, I’m not sure if you’re still talking about software–but if you are, you’re mistaken. The entire point of software licenses was never to “prevent resale”, but to prevent copying and profiting from that copying. Copyright protection. Do some software companies explicitly try to prevent resale? A few. But mostly, you can resell those single licenses you buy. I just sold several software package licenses I owned.

    • Which ones, James? I’m curious – because every major software package I am aware of does NOT allow resale. Some little ones from smaller companies do. And OEM software can be sold with a machine when you sell the machine. But as a rule…? The line about not being allowed to re-distribute the licence is there for a reason. They don’t want a “used software” market.

  16. “Which ones, James? I’m curious – because every major software package I am aware of does NOT allow resale.”

    For example, except for Academic and other limited sale versions (like white label OEM versions), you can resell any Microsoft product on its original media. For another example, you can resell Apple operating system disks. I just did–legally.
    There are all kinds of licensing agreements with major software manufacturers. I’m still baffled by what you’re describing. Peruse eBay for other examples. Thousands of “used” copies of Windows, for example.

  17. Chuck,
    I clicked on the link to sign and it took me to the “main page” where you can create a petition. I did a search and was not able to find it. Has the petition been removed?

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