My latest Locus Magazine column is DRM Broke Its Promise, which recalls the days when digital rights management was pitched to us as a way to enable exciting new markets where we’d all save big by only buying the rights we needed (like the low-cost right to read a book for an hour-long plane ride), but instead (unsurprisingly) everything got more expensive and less capable.
For 40 years, University of Chicago-style market orthodoxy has promised widespread prosperity as a natural consequence of turning everything into unfettered, unregulated, monopolistic businesses. For 40 years, everyone except the paymasters who bankrolled the University of Chicago’s priesthood have gotten poorer.
Today, DRM stands as a perfect example of everything terrible about monopolies, surveillance, and shareholder capitalism.
The established religion of markets once told us that we must abandon the idea of owning things, that this was an old fashioned idea from the world of grubby atoms. In the futuristic digital realm, no one would own things, we would only license them, and thus be relieved of the terrible burden of ownership.
They were telling the truth. We don’t own things anymore. This summer, Microsoft shut down its ebook store, and in so doing, deactivated its DRM servers, rendering every book the company had sold inert, unreadable. To make up for this, Microsoft sent refunds to the customers it could find, but obviously this is a poor replacement for the books themselves. When I was a bookseller in Toronto, nothing that happened would ever result in me breaking into your house to take back the books I’d sold you, and if I did, the fact that I left you a refund wouldn’t have made up for the theft. Not all the books Microsoft is confiscating are even for sale any longer, and some of the people whose books they’re stealing made extensive annotations that will go up in smoke.
What’s more, this isn’t even the first time an electronic bookseller has done this. Walmart announced that it was shutting off its DRM ebooks in 2008 (but stopped after a threat from the FTC). It’s not even the first time Microsoft has done this: in 2004, Microsoft created a line of music players tied to its music store that it called (I’m not making this up) “Plays for Sure.” In 2008, it shut the DRM servers down, and the Plays for Sure titles its customers had bought became Never Plays Ever Again titles.
We gave up on owning things – property now being the exclusive purview of transhuman immortal colony organisms called corporations – and we were promised flexibility and bargains. We got price-gouging and brittleness.
DRM Broke Its Promise [Locus/Cory Doctorow]