Microsoft is quietly informing customers that the numerous ebooks they’ve purchased from the company will soon be rendered useless. Last April, the company closed the Microsoft Store’s book section after it failed to meet sales goals.
In an explainer posted to the company’s website, Microsoft says that come July, it will shut down the digital rights management (DRM) server essential to licensing of ebooks sold at the store. While Microsoft will be giving refunds to users, the books users bought—or acquired for free—will simply no longer work. Any notes users made on those titles will also disappear. Users who owned and enjoyed these titles will now be forced to buy them again on another platform, where the same intangible ownership problem will simply repeat itself. It’s the latest example of how in the modern era, you no longer actually own the things you buy. Hardware from game consoles to remote controls can be downgraded or bricked on short notice via firmware update. Ebooks, music, and videos purchased electronically can similarly disappear on a whim, often with little or no recourse for the end user. For its part, Microsoft is trying to soften the blow by offering full refunds for all books purchased, and a one-time $25 credit for customers who made electronic notes on the titles. “If you have made mark-ups or annotations in any of your acquired books prior to April 2, 2019, you'll receive an additional $25 credit to your Microsoft account at the same time refunds are processed,” the company informs users. But for academics who’ve made elaborate notes on important titles, $25 doesn’t help much. And the decision, like countless similar corporate decisions before it, highlights the anti-consumer perils of DRM, and how giant companies will often promise flexibility and convenience, only to pull that promise out from under consumers’ feet at a later date.
The perils of such a model have been evident for years, and ignored for just as long.
Fifteen years ago, author and activist Cory Doctorow gave a speech at Microsoft highlighting the dangers of DRM and predicting precisely such an outcome, noting how DRM was increasingly being used not to build or protect better products, but to lock users into one company’s commercial ecosystem, eroding choice and flexibility. “Microsoft once had an ebook store filled with ‘buy now’ buttons—today, Microsoft tells us that we never bought anything, that we merely conditionally licensed it,” Doctorow told Motherboard in an email. “We have allowed to rise a tech industry whose products are booked as a purchase when it is advantageous to the sales pitch to do so, and then silently, instantly converted to a licensing deal when commercial logic demands it,” he argued.
The problem isn’t exclusive to just digital entertainment. As companies embed cloud-connected computers in everything from refrigerators to your car, consumers no longer actually own the heart of these products—they own a temporary license to use them. That license routinely provides endless rights to corporations, but few if any rights for the end user.
“It's a grift, it's always been a grift, and now that it is metastasizing into car parts and voting machines and juicers and artificial pancreases, what was once a peripheral nuisance has become a moral hazard and even an existential threat,” Doctorow said. As a result, a growing segment of consumers have come to realize that often “dumber technology”—like traditional paper books—may sometimes be the smarter option.