Arthur Attwell

Amazon’s e-book disappearing act

If you haven’t heard, in an Orwellian faux pas Amazon recently deleted (and refunded) purchased copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from its customers’ Kindle e-readers. It was the wake-up call the anti-DRM lobby was probably hoping for, and it’s raised a storm of discussion (and confusion) about the evil that is digital rights management.

Certainly, DRM is a foolish, expensive distraction for creative industries but it’s no more “evil” than cars or cigarettes are, in themselves, evil. What earns DRM its forked tail is the way sellers pretend that buying a DRMed product means you own it. For instance, it’s misleading to use a “buy now” button for a product that is essentially on loan. A sensible Luddite might say: “If it says ‘buy now’, I’m buying it, right?”

There are two issues to balance here: On the one hand there is no doubt that the concept of “ownership” is changing in our new, hyperconnected circumstances and that producers and consumers must and will adapt to that. On the other hand it’s more honest, and therefore more sustainable, to build the new industry of digital sales around the expectations consumers have already developed in a bricks-and-mortar world.

This is not to say people wouldn’t pay good money for a digital product on loan. The loan business has a successful past and a bright future. I can choose to pay to borrow something but that should be an informed choice. Who bears responsibility for making that choice an informed one? Put it this way: is it the consumer’s responsibility to know better or the seller’s responsibility to be clear (ie not only in the fineprint) about what they’re really offering? If it’s not the latter, we’re just building a market for lemons.

There are many reasons DRM will eventually fall away for e-books (see the excellent discussion in the comments here and here for some of these reasons) as it already has for music. While producers and retailers figure out how to get there, it’s not too much to ask them to be honest. Criticism of Amazon (and other DRM-centric businesses) has been directed at both its DRM and its duplicity. DRM is stupid, but it’s duplicity that’s destructive.