DRM disaster

I’ve written before about the cynical tactics that companies employ to lock customers into their service, and restrict choice. I like to read, and in our house we have a couple of e-ink ebook readers - early generation Kindle and Kobo ones. Over the years, despite knowing the numerous risks of owning DRM-restricted content, I’ve picked up books from Amazon when they have been heavily discounted. I figured that these were one-off, almost disposable low cost items - but over time, this has built into a significant library of around 130 books. I enjoy using an e-ink reader on holiday, or outdoors in summer, but more commonly I enjoy reading in bed at night on a tablet in dark mode - something a real book can’t offer when you have a sleeping spouse beside you.


Image credit Brenda Clarke/Flickr Creative Commons

Which brings me to something that happened this week. The Kindle app on my Android tablet stopped opening DRM-restricted books, instead giving a black screen. I tried removing the app, deregistering, clearing cache and data from the app. Only DRM-free books that I had bought elsewhere and sent to the Kindle app could be opened successfully. I initiated a lengthy chat session with Amazon. The support guy tried a few things, and eventually closed all lines of enquiry with “in that case, your tablet in not `supported”, even though it satisfies the requirements specified in the Google Play Store, and that it worked last week.

So that was it: Amazon had effectively taken away my content, since this was the chief device on which I consumed it.

Yes, I know that with DRM content, you never “own the book, so don’t come crying to me when Amazon take your books away”, et cetera, but if we put hard boundaries around everything in life, we end up cutting off our nose to spite our face sometimes. I’m an idealist who is also pragmatic. I like free software but I also have some non-free software on my system. The pragmatic side of me says that I wouldn’t have read many of these books had it not been taking opportunity of extreme price reductions. I prioritise reading as many ebooks as I can through the local library app as a priority, but it doesn’t have the widest range of books, or may have long waiting times.

So where am I going with this? While I was aware of the risks, and tried to quench the discomfort of cognitive dissonance I felt while “buying” these ebooks, I probably didn’t really think it would happen to me. It also didn’t happen the way I expected. And as I type this, I’ve just remembered - this isn’t even the first time - I paid for the Shaun the Sheep movie from Google Play Store once, and it stopped working on my tablet soon after. Because this was the only film in my library (usually would buy a DVD, or rent a time limited stream), it hadn’t really registered with me at the time that this was a DRM issue, but yes, I’ve been mugged like this before without really noticing. Of course, I could buy a new tablet, or in the case of an ebook, make a DRM-free copy for personal use (even if it’s legal in your country, such a process is quite a faff) or install the app on my phone and use a giant magnifying glass, but one day the app was working, and the next moment it wasn’t - without any changes at my end. I suppose that taught me a lesson: be prepared, it really can happen to you.