Chuck Carroll

On Piracy and DRM

Published: 2023-10-28
Updated: 2023-11-23

I recently responded to a question on a forum about why I don't use local library apps like OverDrive's Libby to borrow ebooks. It's not that I'm necessarily entirely opposed but there's a couple of reasons why I don't. First, I don't like having to install some random proprietary commercial app on my device collecting data on my reading habits. Secondly, publishers and platforms force libraries to implement restrictions on ebooks (and other digital goods) which I find both odd and annoying. My response had gotten some backlash for indicating that I had at one point pirated an ebook, and instead of responding on an almost dead forum, I wanted to write it out here.

A few years ago, I wanted to read a physical copy of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari through my local library, but I had to wait behind a dozen or so other people before any of the physical copies to became available. I then tried to use Libby, the service my local library (and most other US libraries) uses to lend ebooks, only to discover there was closer to 20 or so people waiting for one of the digital versions to become available.

That experience was frustrating and didn't make any sense to me. It still doesn't. It demonstrates that artificial limitations are intentionally imposed on "digital goods" like ebooks when they really don't need to. Book publishers and platforms do this to create artificial scarcity on a digital item. Libraries pay for single licenses for a "copy" of a book where they're allowed to "lend" a number of time and over a period of time before the license expires.

With Sapiens I ended up downloading (pirating) a copy I found online and started reading. Eventually a physical copy of the book became available, and I transitioned from my pirated ebook to the physical borrowed book. I'll also mention that I enjoyed Sapiens so much that I eventually purchased a physical used copy of the book. My tax dollars goes toward funding local libraries and therefore that specific ebook license. I don't see a difference in an ebook potentially being made available to me to read in the future and pirating a digital copy online now. The end result is the same.

Maybe you could argue that the publishing company is being deprived of something, but what could they possibly be deprived of? If it's "stealing" to download an ebook that's available through my local library, isn't it also stealing when I borrow the book? Extending that even further, an almost identical argument can be made when I purchase a used copy of a book off of eBay or from a used book store.

Admittedly, I used to pirate a lot of stuff when I was younger, but I rarely do nowadays if at all. However, over the past couple of years I've become adamant that if I purchase a digital item, I expect a file that I can do so as I wish. I should be able to use it with any device I have, or with any program I choose to. I heavily use Bandcamp to purchase music (and others), and even pay for music that a musician has made available for free under a Creative Commons license. Same goes for DRM-free audiobooks and ebooks. What if I bought a CD from Bandcamp or Amazon but I could only play it through a proprietary CD player that Bandcamp or Amazon approve of that also simultaneously collects a ridiculous amount of data regaring my listening habits. Wouldn't that be stupid? Now perhaps you can see why I distain DRM with books.

Ebook platforms themselves are also quite terrible. The reading experience through Libby, Amazon Kindle, and other content consumption services are both exploitative and restrictive. The platform gathers metrics on things like what you're reading, for how long, every swipe you make on the screen, etc. And in many cases, it's almost impossible to read an ebook "legally" unless you use the approved reading app thereby allowing the platform (and sometimes the publisher) to surveil your behaviors. There's no reason to lock customers into a platform or app to prevent them from moving their collection elsewhere, nor is there any reason to extract data from customers for advertising. There's a reason data collection is so valuable and a multi-billion dollar industry. Intellectual freedom includes the right to read and research based on the idea that we can read, learn, and debate without being monitored.

I absolutely do believe that it's better ethically to purchase digital goods than to resort to piracy. An author, musician, etc, does deserve compensation for the work they produced, especially if you get some sort of enjoyment or usefulness out of it. That said, I'm not going to admit that I feel utterly ashamed of myself for downloading crappy MP3s of Linkin Park 20 years ago. In fact, music artists have outright benefited from piracy. I know I'm not alone when I say that downloading music exposed me to music I would not have heard otherwise, which resulted in me paying to see the artist live in concert, ordering merchandise, and paying for CDs (and digital music later). If I'm only able to buy a book that's DRM restricted, that requires that I be online to "unlock" it, that makes it mandatory I create an Adobe account, and will only be viewable on a specific proprietary app that does not respect my privacy, then fuck you. I know that in many cases, DRM can be removed from a digital book, but not before giving up your information to Adobe to set up an account, etc, and this type of behavior should not be encouraged.

Imposing artificial limitations on someone that willingly wants to give you money for some content, is absurd. People that want to pirate will continue to pirate. If I have to pirate a book or a song, it's not because I want to, and I'd argue that if it can be easily paid for, most people will happily pay for music and books without artificial restrictions. Publishers and platforms are incentivised to prevent the purchaser/reader from behavior that they disapprove of, such as reselling their book or lending it to a friend because it effects their bottom line. The data collected through the mandatory and "approved" reading app is also then monetized further.

I think this is where I conclude this rant. I highly recommend reading The Anti-Ownership Ebook Economy to understand just how shady the ebook business has become. I also recommend checking out, a campaign aimed to expose and eliminate DRM, as well as their Guide to DRM-Free Living. Below is a list of resources to buy DRM-free content or obtain content out of copyright:




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