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Microsoft To Erase E-Books


In this era of streaming and downloading, what do we really own? That song on Spotify; maybe not. That e-book you're reading at the beach right now; think again. You may have access, but you don't always have ownership. This is known as DRM - digital rights management. Now Microsoft has closed its e-book department and is scheduled to start removing all electronic books from users' libraries. Joining us now to discuss this is Aaron Perzanowski. He is the author of "The End Of Ownership: Personal Property In The Digital Economy."


AARON PERZANOWSKI: Great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if I'm in the middle of reading "Anna Karenina" and I fire up my Kindle to continue and it might just be gone, I never find out what happens.

PERZANOWSKI: That's certainly a possibility. This is a problem that stretches back about a decade, when Amazon deleted a number of books from the collections of its customers, including, quite ironically, George Orwell's "1984."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So do you get a refund? Do you get reimbursed for your loss?

PERZANOWSKI: In most of these instances, the companies have provided refunds. That's not always the case. I think there's also a question of whether or not a refund really makes the consumer whole. In many of these platforms, you're able to make annotations or take notes or highlight passages. And a refund might not make you whole for the investment that you've made in researching and reading a particular work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, yeah. I read that Microsoft will throw in an extra 25 bucks if you added markups to your e-book, but maybe some of those notes were crucial - right? - if you're, say, a teacher or a lawyer. And now they're gone.

PERZANOWSKI: Yeah. I can say as an academic researcher, $25 is not going to be enough to satisfy me if I lose, you know, months or years of research that I've invested in one of these e-book platforms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What other goods, though, have DRMs?

PERZANOWSKI: One of the things that I think people don't realize that's crucially important is that DRM and related software tools are embedded in all sorts of devices that we buy - your car, your smart home appliances, your home security system, right? All of these systems have software that allows for this kind of control over how the devices are used. And I think we're going to see these same sorts of situations crop up in the context of physical devices that are being used in people's homes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: DRM was originally meant as an anti-piracy measure, but it's seemingly become more of a way for companies to lock consumers into their ecosystems.

PERZANOWSKI: I think that's absolutely right. The initial vision for DRM was that it was going to allow for the sale of digital goods online in a way that reduced the risk of copyright infringement. As this technology has been deployed, what we've seen is that the big beneficiaries of DRM have not been copyright holders. They have been technology companies like Amazon, like Microsoft, who are able to control these ecosystems to make it harder for consumers to switch over to new platforms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is a consumer to do? Can I buy a non-DRM song or a book title or movie?

PERZANOWSKI: It depends on what sort of content you're interested in. Interestingly, the digital download music market moved away from DRM quite a long time ago. In the context of movies, e-books, video games, DRM is still very common, even though they present real downsides for consumers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess there's another alternative, which is to actually physically buy things like a printed book and (laughter) a DVD that we can have and hold.

PERZANOWSKI: So I think that's absolutely true in the media context. When it comes to physical devices, though, you know, you can go out and buy a car. And you think you own the car because it's parked in your garage. But in reality, how it functions, who can repair it, what replacement parts are compatible with it - all of that is controlled through software code. And so I think that line between the physical and the digital is getting increasingly blurry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Aaron Perzanowski is a law professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PERZANOWSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.