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You Don’t Own DRMed eBooks, Part Gazillion

4254099567_2ac8108be3_bThis blogger has long advocated stripping DRM as the only way to protect your purchases.

We’ve seen countless examples of files vanishing when a service shuts down, an account is closed, or a retailer takes away the download button, and now Brnes & Noble has given us yet another example of why it would be better to say that a DRMed ebook is borrowed rather than purchased.

Writing over at Teleread, Chris Meadows writes "I bought my first e-book in 1998, before my e-reading hardware had even arrived yet. Yesterday I discovered that Barnes & Noble has effectively stolen that book from me, mistakenly replacing it it in my Nook library with another title I never bought."

But imagine my surprise when I found that, rather than the original version, I had the BookRags A Fire Upon the Deep study guide in my library—an off-brand Cliff’s Notes on the book—instead. I never bought said study guide, because I don’t buy study guides. Apparently somewhere along the way Barnes & Noble got confused over titles and substituted it. The original book itself was nowhere to be found.

I wasn’t too concerned—I still have both editions safely in my Calibre library on Dropbox—but I was bemused. I decided to contact Barnes & Noble chat support and see what they could do for me. After I explained the problem, the representative told me that I could go ahead and purchase A Fire Upon the Deep if I wanted, and offered to give me the link.


Based on similar reports, the substitution probably occurred in 2011 when B&N closed Fictionwise and shifted customers' ebooks over to the Nook platform, but given the generally flaky state of the B&N website and servers last year, it could really have happened at any time.

This, folks, is why the first thing you should do after buying an ebook or any other type of digital content is to strip the DRM, and make a back up copy.

As Cory Doctorow said, if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.

When you buy a physical book, said Doctorow, you own that book.  You can lend it to friends, give it away, or even sell it.  But when you buy an ebook, you license it.  Depending upon the source you purchased an ebook from, you may only have the right/ability to read it on a single device or type of device.  It often comes with Digital Rights Management attached, he noted, so you cannot make any changes that will allow you to read your ebook on other devices or loan it or transfer it to someone else. You can’t even save it and open it independently of its original intended environment.

“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” he declared.

The only way to guarantee you can open a DRMed ebook is to strip the DRM.

image by marc kjerland


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Frank March 16, 2016 um 2:51 pm

You misspelled the first Barnes & Noble as "Brnes".

DRM is an issue, especially with the UK B&N ebook store closing. At least Amazon is not going to close anytime in the next five years.

Julie March 16, 2016 um 3:10 pm

I first stripped DRM because Amazon (well the publisher) wouldn’t let me use the TTS feature on a Kindle title back in the days of the very robotic sounding TTS on the Kindle Keyboard. Very annoying!

fahirsch March 16, 2016 um 3:10 pm

As far as I know, the DRM on books bought in the Apple Store is unbreakable. That’s why I don’t buy books in the Apple Store (plus they are more expensive than Amazon).
And, yes, I strip the DRM and have backup in OneDrive and Dropbox

Feda March 16, 2016 um 4:35 pm

I never buy DRM infested e-books. Why give your support to publishers that are customer friendly instead of supporting those who are not?

tarwin March 20, 2016 um 1:30 pm

I think you got that last bit backwards…

fahirsch March 16, 2016 um 5:00 pm

Unfortunately, when buying a specific book, I don’t have a choice between publisher A or B.

Chris Meadows March 16, 2016 um 6:37 pm

The DMCA is really such a dumb law. It’s like a speed limit. You can break it with hardly any effort at all. Even telling someone else how to do it breaks it. And it’s a law that is designed, whether intentionally or not, to part people from their money.

As I noted in part of the article Nate didn’t quote (and I submitted a form to the EFF about), this case of B&N losing one of my e-books was just the icing on the cake, an insult added to an earlier injury. The injury in question is, they lost at least $200 worth of e-books I’d purchased—and to keep backup copies of those e-books would have meant breaking the law.

(And I’m certainly not going to come right out and admit to breaking the law, whether I did or not.)

Effectively, the DMCA is like Prohibition, wherein it outlaws something people really want to do, and they’ll happily ignore the law if they can get away with it. And it’s a lot easier to get away with cracking DRM than sneaking illicit booze.

Bill Smith March 16, 2016 um 6:44 pm

Simply put, don’t buy books with DRM. Let publishers know that you won’t buy their products because of DRM. (It’s not a bad idea to let your favorite authors know that you won’t buy DRMd books either.)

There are plenty of DRM-free vendors — Smashwords, Weightless, DriveThruFiction. And Kobo, Google Play and Comixology list whether a book has DRM or not AND allow you to simply buy and download without a proprietary piece of software.

There are plenty of awesome options and substitutions to pick from if your specific author is only available in a DRMd format.

Chris Meadows March 16, 2016 um 6:55 pm

Unfortunately, your boycott will be lost in the noise, because the vast majority of readers aren’t into cutting off their nose to spite their face. If Stephen King or whoever comes out with a new novel they want to read, they’re not going to forego it because of evil DRM. Especially given that most people don’t even know how evil DRM is.

It’s like all the people who say folks should boycott Hollywood over Hollywood’s asinine policies. But if everyone who felt that way boycotted, Hollywood wouldn’t even notice.

Bruce March 16, 2016 um 11:02 pm

I recently wrote an article on DRM for a local rag. If I hadn’t been totally anti-DRM before I started, after doing the research I certainly was. And the thing is all the publishers (granted they were only local and regional ones) were all either "who cares" or totally onboard with the more insidious aspects of DRM. The more savvy of them fully realized the eventually they will eventually be looking to selling user data not books as their major source of income.

I try my hardest to buy from publishers who abjure DRM first, but I agree with Chris, boycotting the rest is just shooting yourself in the foot for no good reason.

Feda March 17, 2016 um 7:51 am

There are millions of books out there. Reading the next Stephen King or whoever is not a life’s necessity. No harm would come to anyone skipping it and opting out for reading a book from someone who is not treating you like a criminal.
Readers have an incredible amount of choices and choosing to buy products from somebody who is using that money to undermine your freedom is just stupid.

Robert Nagle March 17, 2016 um 4:03 pm

You aren’t naming the primary culprit and solution. Amazon is the biggest purveyor of DRM, while Smashwords/Baen/Oreilly have abandoned it.

The trick is persuading people to seek their book from other sources (and persuading authors and readers to be aware of the DRM issue so they can seek alternatives).

Nate Hoffelder March 17, 2016 um 4:13 pm

Amazon may be the leading purveyor of ebook DRM, but they’re not forcing it down anyone’s throat.

Deanna March 25, 2016 um 3:37 pm

Ok, now that I’ve found out what DRM is, I suppose that if you get a book that is DRMed, you must strip it at purchase. My books still appear in my Nook but are all locked. Will someone please explain – if possible – what, if anything, can be done to retrieve what we have paid for!
Also, are there other booksellers who will download to a Nook ereader?
If not, I am screwed. Thanks Barnes & Noble for nothing.

Nate Hoffelder March 25, 2016 um 5:47 pm

What do you mean, they’re locked?

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