Cory Doctorow: DRM Broke Its Promise

Cory Doctorow
Photo by Paula Mariel Salischiker

When states had established religions and all-powerful churches, the clergy could impose many indignities on their parishoners merely by asserting that it was “God’s will.” Our modern secular religion is the worship of markets as self-correcting, self-perfecting systems that merely demand that we all act in our own self-interest to produce an outcome that makes us all better off. Whenever corporations thrive by making us all worse off, we’re told to stop complaining, because it is the “will of the market” at work.

So it was that when the digital revolution arrived, the business priesthood told us that we must not be tempted by its promise of infinite distribution of all hu­man knowledge at no cost. Any technology that let the “consumers” of information goods do more with the books, movies, games, and music they bought would not be a boon, because it would destroy the markets for media, including the markets that had us buying our music in a new format every couple of years, the markets that required libraries to re-purchase their patrons’ best-loved books when they wore out, and so on.

Despite the fact that no one ever went to a store and asked for a book that would wear out quickly or a music format that would be obsolete in a couple of years, we were told that the limitations of the physi­cal world were, in fact, happy accidents of virtuous matter, whose limitations allowed for all kinds of “innovations,” like selling you an album on vinyl, then 8-track, then cassette, then CD.

Using digital to subvert this cycle of renewal – to allow instant, free access to all human culture for all humans – was a sin in market religion’s doctrine. But the priesthood did have an orthodox, virtuous use for digital: they wanted to use digital tools to enable new markets, markets that never could have existed in the world of dumb matter.

The problem with markets is that selling things is inefficient. There are so many people who don’t need the thing, just a momentary use of the thing: the right to read a book today, but not to own it forever; to use a snatch of a song as a ringtone, but not to put it in your music library; to pull a video clip out of a movie to use in your student project, without having to buy the movie.

Digital, the priesthood told us, could make all these markets – and more – a reality! Thanks to a technology called “Digital Rights Management,” sellers and buyers could negotiate a subset of rights and a reduced payment for same. In the same way that the humble mortgage could be spun out into a million “products” that investors could buy in the form of complex financial instruments, we could turn the unitary book into a thousand sub-books: the book you can only read on Wednesdays, the book you can only read while on an airplane, the book you can only read after the sun sets.

That’s not what we got, of course.

Today, four of the five big publishers sell all their books with DRM (the exception is Macmillan, whose Tor science fiction and fantasy imprint is DRM-free). These ebooks are like books, except that they are locked to the readers approved by the vendor who sold them to you (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.) and they can’t be given away or re-sold, and have little or no capacity for lending them out. In other words, ebooks are like regular books, only they do less.

Despite the fact that they do less, they don’t cost less. The restricted ebooks sold by Tor’s competitors – books that can’t be used with the reader of your choice, or sold, or lent, or given away – cost just the same as Tor’s unrestricted books.

In other words, we were told that we must reject the promise of unfet­tered digital in favor of locked-down digital, and in return, we would enter a vibrant marketplace where sellers offered exactly the uses we needed, at a price that was reduced to reflect the fact that we were getting a limited product. We got the limited product, all right – just not the discount.

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.

Take textbooks: the price of college texts has been rising at an average of 12% per year, with textbook publishers extracting $3.5B/year from American students. The textbooks come with mandatory online resources, and logins for these have to be purchased anew every year, so even if you sell your old textbooks, the kid who buys them from you still has to buy an online login. Professors are offered substantial bribes to select the most expensive texts, and high-performance digital tools make it easy for publish­ers to make minor alterations every year or two so that earlier “editions” of the text are no longer in synch with the professors’ lesson plans, making used books effectively worthless.

Or libraries: libraries often pay higher costs for ebooks than they do for print books, and on top of that, publishers impose ridiculous conditions on the ebooks they sell to libraries, like making them self-destruct after a few lendings (Harpercollins) or just not making ebooks available to libraries at all until the hardcover is no longer a new release (Tor). Again: like print books, only worse. And more expensive.

Didn’t DRM get us ebooks for libraries in the first place, though? Well, it’s true that publishers were reluctant to sell to libraries until libraries started to use Overdrive and other DRM systems (paying for these eats away at libraries’ collection budgets, meaning fewer books, and less money for publishers and writers), but there’s no reason to think that dropping DRM would be a deal-breaker today. After all, it’s been five years since libraries stopped using DRM for electronic audiobooks – the most expensive ma­terials that libraries circulate – and audiobook publishers are still selling audiobooks to libraries.

Even for streaming services – virtually synonymous with DRM – there’s no reason to think that DRM is why those services have customers. People don’t sign up for Spotify or Netflix to get their five (or fifty, or five hundred) favorite titles, which they plan on downloading in the first month and then quitting the service. People sign up for streaming services for convenience and recommendations and search, all possible with or without DRM.

Streaming services do depend on DRM: DRM is how Spotify stops third parties from making play­ers that skip ads, and it’s how Netflix and Amazon Prime stop you from saving its Christmas movies to your hard-drive in July so you can watch them for free in December, when they become pay-per-view movies.

There’s a name for societies where a small elite own property and everyone else rents that prop­erty from them: it’s called feudalism. DRM never delivered a world of flexible consumer choice, but it was never supposed to. Instead, twenty years on, DRM is revealed to be exactly what we feared: an oligarchic gambit to end property ownership for the people, who become tenants in the fields of greedy, confiscatory tech and media companies, whose in­ventiveness is not devoted to marvelous new market propositions, but, rather, to new ways to coerce us into spending more for less.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

All opinions expressed by commentators are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Locus.

This article and more like it in the September 2019 issue of Locus.

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21 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: DRM Broke Its Promise

  • September 2, 2019 at 9:03 pm


  • September 3, 2019 at 1:46 pm

    This is why I believe that cracking DRM is morally justified. If I paid good money for a book, I expect it to be mine forever (and usable on whatever platform I want to read it on), not for as long as the company that thinks they rented it to me want me to have it.

  • September 4, 2019 at 3:51 am

    This is why I always wanted to get my movies and whatnot in hardcopy. Give me DVDs any day, but they’re not making DVD players anymore. Books are at least independent of that.

    • November 25, 2019 at 11:56 am

      > Give me DVDs any day, but they’re not making DVD players anymore.

      News to me, but you can buy a DVD burner for a computer for $15 and read DVDs, which are still being produced and are now in most libraries. And Blu-ray players are still being made.

      And there is infamous software made and sold online by a Chinese company which can remove DRM from even the latest Amazon DRM system. Making us buy that results in more sharing of eBooks than if the protection was weaker, ISTM.

  • September 4, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    You are concentrating largely on entertainment and textbooks. But DRM has a chilling effect on the independent researcher or scientist. I am in that demographic. Forty years ago, if I wanted to read an article in a refereed professional journal, I would go to the public library, or more likely to one of the many university research libraries in the city, and sit there for hours reading, and ultimately making photocopies of the relevant articles for my research notebook. But 15 years ago, the relevant journals were electronic, and the universities limited access to students and faculty. Independent researchers we’re forbidden access. For one research project, I had to drive five hours to a research library that did not have such limitations. Not only did this require the cost of several hundred miles travel, but required three overnights in a nearby hotel. I spent ten hours reading and making notes, but I could not get hardcopy (that was forbidden by their contract with the publisher) so I did a lot of transcriptions. And not one of the citations I wanted to follow up on was hyperlinked, even to previous issues in the same journal. The prices for a PDF we’re almost always >$30, and I didn’t even know if the article was worth the price, because I couldn’t read it. I have done research in many areas, for nonfiction book research, for the SF stories I am writing (and may even be published someday, although I am still in rejection-letter mode), and as part of the research for professional development and various consulting gigs. Now, I am retired, managing three research projects, and the usual degradation of the body from being 72 means that a five-hour drive and four days of tediously transcribing data are events that will probably never happen again. I am doing bioengineering research for one project, developing a device that will reduce infant mortality rates in developing countries. I live in a city with an overabundance of medical research and teaching hospitals, and I cannot access the medical research libraries; even the one I used 15 years ago no longer permits outsiders to even enter, and the reference librarians are mandated to refuse service to outsiders.

    Information does not want to be free. Information is just passive bits, and unless there has been some secret breakthrough, data doesn’t have feelings. But people want information to BE free, or at least affordable, and that is not happening. As you point out, current policies “teach against” this model. It isn’t just people wanting free or low-cost entertainment or textbooks; it is all curious people, everywhere that are being impacted.

    BTW, that medical device, once we get it completed, is going out under a CC BY-SA-NC 4.0 license.

    • September 6, 2019 at 6:38 am

      The license CC BY-SA-NC that you plan to use has a serious flaw: as
      more and more people make modifications, they will produce versions
      for which it is not feasible even to ask for permission for commercial
      use. See for
      explanation of this problem.

      If a work is designed for any kind of practical use, please release
      it under a free license, one that gives the four freedoms that allow
      people to use it in freedom. See

      However, a medical device is a physical object, not as such a
      copyrightable work. What are the copyrightable works that you envision
      releasing under a CC license? Are any of them software?

      Creative Commons says that its license are not meant for software. See

      I suggest using
      to choose a free software license for your programs.

      If you don’t want to let others make nonfree modified versions
      of your software, I suggest using a _copyleft_ license, such as
      the GNU General Public License.

    • September 6, 2019 at 7:58 am

      First off, Joseph, kudos for choosing to follow the academic’s path, which can’t be an easy one in a country and a time that seems increasingly hostile to the very notion of learning (as opposed to training), and to intellectualism and the pursuit of knowledge in general.

      It feels to me as though, not only does information not have any desires or aspirations towards freedom, but “the people” really don’t, either. Oh, sure, individually there are some people with very strong opinions one way or the other, but they’re a relatively small minority. Collectively, I don’t get the impression we’re even interested enough to have formed an opinion. The collective will is mostly focused on its much more basic, mundane needs, and as long as those are met it doesn’t worry about the how or the why. That’s one of the things that makes so-called “free market” economics and its pipe dream of people voting with their pocketbooks such a naïve fantasy — if not out-and-out lie.

      Amazon is popular because it gives us more convenient acess to a wider variety of products at better prices, vs. the hassle of dealing with traditional local retailers. They achieve that, in part, by overworking and abusing their employees? Oh, that’s too bad, someone should do something about that. But, what am I gonna do, NOT order from Amazon? I said it was a bad thing, not that I care enough to be inconvenienced by it.

      DRM is just one of many technologies that preys on that sort of disinterest, which as it turns out extends even to our (collective) selves. The entire publishing landscape, across all forms of media and in all markets, growing increasingly abusive towards its customers? That’s too bad, someone should do something about that. But, what am I gonna do, NOT watch the next season of “CG Actor, CG Script”? I said it was too bad, not that I feel inconvenienced enough to consider missing out.

      If there’s still some option provided for people to access the content (no longer products!) they want, and as long as it’s not TOO abusively expensive or inconvenient, they’ll just accept it. And if it grows just a little bit more expensive and just a little bit less convenient each year, they’ll keep accepting those incremental changes without ever noticing just how much they’ve really given up, how much of their power and agency has been slowly chip-chip-chipped away.

      I don’t know what the solution to that is, but I’m not putting my money on “the people” doing anything at all to solve it. But it’s definitely too bad, and someone should really do something about that.

    • September 8, 2019 at 8:49 am

      Use for scientific papers, and for books

  • September 4, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    Correction: I did not spend 10 hours doing research in that remote library, I spent 10 hours per day for four days.

  • September 4, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    “DRM broke its promise”

    Cue open-mouthed pikachu meme.

    As software eats the world and literally everything becomes an *aaS of some kind, this stuff is gonna get real ugly. We already all rent everything in reality, with ownership in general of all durable (or previously durable) commodities plummeting compared to a few decades ago. And steadily we are having to do that in order to make use of any and all thoughts and ideas as well. It’s this weird total-squeeze consumerist tactic. Literally everything will be a commodity you have to rent forever. Even your own body through this kleptocrat healthcare system of ours.

  • September 4, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    I liked the comparison between capitalism and religion, as I find it perfectly accurate in how people treat markets.

    I’m fond of this saying I thought up not too long back:
    The “invisible hand” of “the free market” seems more concerned with masturbation than anything.

    The only solution I currently employ is not wanting for the movies and songs and other such things that are locked away. I find much of it to be filth I wouldn’t want to watch, anyway. Unfortunately, this isn’t a solution for most people or those who would actually care to participate in modern society and its culture.

    One could be hopeful and expect that corporations seeking to create popular culture and yet charge rent on it indefinitely would eventually be stopped, but I’m not so hopeful. In closing, one may expect that copyleft and other such mechanisms that enforce sharing could eventually gain a critical mass that makes them unavoidable, but history has shown that those in power will simply change the rules once it suits them, as the Trans-Pacific Partnership had a clause explicitly attacking systems such as copyleft.

    In considering serfdom and whatnot, the French Revolution comes to mind, though.

  • September 4, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    Intellectual property is an aberration. There should not exist anything like that and the mere existence of IP is the cause of a huge market distortion.
    I’m not against researching or arts or any subject under IP laws, but against the coertion used to ensure it.
    Ideas are not scarse beings and cannot be “owned”.

    • September 6, 2019 at 6:39 am

      The term “intellectual property” is incoherent. It tries to
      generalize about many unrelated laws; as a result, any statement
      formulated using that term spreads confusion. See

      The simplest way to make your statements coherent is to avoid the term
      “intellectual property” and always say which specific law you’re
      talking about.

      DRM as a general practice relates specifically to only one of those
      laws: copyright. It has nothing to do with trademark law. It has
      nothing to do with trade secret law, though the details of the DRM
      system are likely to be secret. It has nothing to do with patent law,
      though DRM technology may or may not be patented. It has nothing to
      do with publicity rights, or plant variety monopolies, or publicity
      rights, or design patents.

      So it is better to say “copyright” rather than “IP”, in this case.

  • September 6, 2019 at 10:39 am

    As always, Cory Doctorow is correct and insightful. There is a ridealong issue with all of this that really bothers me, though. Advertising. No marketer of digital music, movies, videogames, ebooks, etc advertises their products by saying “License it today!” or “Get approval for use!” They consistently, universally, and exclusively advertise “BUY it now!” or even “GET your copy today!” This is quintessential and textbook false advertising. It is fraudulent, deceptive, and an unfair trade practice by any measure.

    I am also bothered by the actual content of those “license agreements” that very few people actually read. I often do give them a look. And their contents strike me as profoundly unenforceable in a great many cases. As they are written, most license agreements boil down to “we, the licensor, assume no obligation or liability whatsoever, and you, the licensee, are guaranteed no benefit.” Contract law, and license agreements are contracts, is a thing. And it requires that any legal contract must contain ‘consideration.’ You can not legally make a contract that says “Person X will give me a million dollars and I will do nothing in return.” That contract has no consideration. It does not propose an exchange of value that addresses the concerns of both sides. Modern license agreements contain no consideration. When you “buy” a digital movie, for example, it is very typical that the license agreement does NOT grant you access or permission to use a copy of the movie. It does not require the licensor to provide you the ability to watch the movie, and it does not give the licensee legal right to acquire or view the movie. There are exceptions, but as they stand the majority of license agreements amount to throwing money at a company and making a vague wish that they won’t prosecute you when you use the content. If they do prosecute you, and you drag out the license agreement and want to show where they agreed to let you use it – good luck.

  • September 7, 2019 at 8:51 am

    It’s nice to be in favor of free content when you run a clickbait website full of ads and have a nice sinecure as a professor and a “research affiliate.”

    It’s not so nice if you’re trying to make a living as a writer or artist and someone can come along and grab your work without paying you a red cent.

    DRM may be bad but starvation is a whole lot worse.

  • September 12, 2019 at 4:52 am

    It seems to me this is an ideal dream world hes talking about. DRM protects artists from being robbed by people who don’t respect art and want to take it for free. Myself being one of them, this is contrary to my personal finances. It is also a direct attack on artists as a whole, yes the megacorps that use DRM are almost assuredly evil… DUH. “It is known” but the artists who are forced to work with them, since they own monopolies, have no say in it in most cases, not all but most. The same goes for books, you think that a writer wants to get his first book published then finds out that most of the people who read it , read it illegally, and the writer was stiffed on their cut of their work.

    Put the hate where it belongs the groups who Monopolize and force DRM and price hikes to artists. Stop using pirated software, books, music, movies etc… If you respect the artists dont do it, its a slap in our face.

  • September 24, 2019 at 4:39 am

    Cut the elitist FUD, Cory. Copyright and protection of copyright levels the playing field, it allows the little guy to make something with his own mind and skill and compete in the marketplace of ideas.

    • November 25, 2019 at 12:04 pm

      Unless he comes up with a system the automakers (or other giant corporations) want but won’t pay for!

      Some artists have found that the corporation they signed with kept selling their work even after the agreement they made had lapsed so the same corporation was violating the law, not the customers.

      Most niche ideas don’t fail from a lack of copyright protection but from a lack of finance or a good business plan.

  • October 2, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    Nice article, though I do thing the title is, as some said, a little click-bait-y.

    On a different not, I am not seeing any proposal here on how we should fix the issue. We can’t exactly just rollback the last two decades.

    To all the idiots pretending that a lack of DRM or copyright would screw everyone: I suggest that they consider that we did just fine without DRM-ed everything for a long time. And while you’re at it go back and see what copyright used to be before Disney, etc got to it. It was instituted to protect writers
    for a /limited time/ from the detrimental effects of someone getting ahold of their work and making money from selling copies of it. It wasn’t about denying anyone the ability to read it unless they personally paid for it.

    Yes, there will always be thieves, but much work has been done to expand the definition of thievery to anyone who doesn’t sufficiently enrich the capitalist overlords.

  • October 24, 2019 at 10:38 pm

    You’ve *nearly* diagnosed the problem correctly. It is not markets in general that produce these abuses, but *non-free* markets in particular. When there is a lack of information symmetry and competitiveness in a market is low, then that is not a *free market*. I don’t know which subject you are hiding behind the passive voice in, for example, “we’re told to stop complaining”, but it isn’t advocates of *free* markets that tell you this. It might very well be advocates and beneficiaries of non-free, oligopolistic or even monopolistic markets that tell you this. Please don’t confuse the two.


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