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 customers 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 markups. 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.”
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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.”
. . . .
More than anything, Microsoft’s ebook rapture underscores the hidden dangers of the DRM system that underpins most digital purchases. Originally intended as an antipiracy 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.
. . . .
“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,” Sullivan says. “This is still the prevalent way of distributing media. That companies still pull the plug is still surprising and frustrating.”
Link to the rest at Wired
PG gently suggests that any lawyer who annotates a copy-protected ebook which resides online is not terribly wise.
PG probably has a moral (but not legal) obligation to remind one and all that, in the click-to-accept license agreement they entered into when they bought their MS ebooks, purchasers almost certainly agreed to not circumvent any copy protection software locking those ebooks up.
He will also remind the same group that, regardless of whether the license specifically prohibited circumvention, hacking copy protection is still illegal under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, specifically 17 U.S.C. 1201. Violating this prohibition carries both civil and criminal penalties.
That said, PG suspects Microsoft will turn a blind eye to any evidence those who licensed ebooks from them have hacked the copy protection in order to make copies of the text.
However, publishers of the ebooks may not react in the same way.
PG hasn’t checked into the nature of Microsoft’s ebook copy protection or the copy protection used by publishers of ebooks sold by it, but, at least some copy protection software (I’m looking at you, Adobe) has, at least in past days, collected information about ebooks residing on computers, tablets, ereaders, etc., and sent it back to the mother ship. In 2014, this included ebooks using Adobe’s copy protection software and other ebooks that did not use Adobe software. See this post and related posts on The Digital Reader for the gory details.
PC suggests that those who have purchased ebooks from Microsoft decide whether they care about losing any of them. If the answer is yes, these readers can use some or all of the money they receive from MS to buy replacement copies somewhere more reliable.
If any visitors have made more than cursory annotations to any Microsoft ebooks, PG suggests the safest route from a DMCA violation standpoint would be to contact the publishers of those ebooks and ask for their help in salvaging the text and annotations. (Go ahead and contact the authors, too. They may have more reputational capital at stake than the publishers do.)
PG thinks Microsoft deserves a lot of heat for orphaning ebooks it sold without a way for purchasers to preserve access to them. For example, did MS think to contact Amazon to see if it could provide MS book-buyers with copies of the same titles from Amazon? If not, why not?
Why not throw some brains into a solution that won’t alienate Microsoft customers instead of refunding the money the customers spent plus $25? If the customers wanted money instead of books, they probably wouldn’t have purchased any books from MS in the first place.
For PG, nothing else has so effectively communicated the message, “We’re Microsoft and you’re not,” for a long time.
For the record, PG has not ever purchased any ebooks from Microsoft and is unlikely to do so in any future life.
If anyone does attempt to salvage MS ebooks, PG would be interested in any details of their experience they might care to share. If they don’t want to leave a comment, they can email PG via the Contact link on TPV.
If PG were advising any of the publishers (particularly publishers of books for readers in various learned professions), PG would suggest that the publishers do everything possible to collect contact information regarding any of their ebook purchasers impacted by Microsoft’s decision and take affirmative steps to communicate with those readers and offer to provide replacement ebooks in one of the other ebook formats in common use.