Who Owns Your Files

This appeared as an opinion piece in Full Circle Magazine Issue #68, December 2012

Recently a Norwegian Kindle owner named Linn suddenly found her Kindle had been wiped clean of all the books she had purchased from Amazon. Whether this was a simple mistake or yet another act of evilness is not the main point of what I want to say here. It could have been either, or both, and it would not be relevant. The key is that Amazon could do this, and the “owner” could do nothing. According to Amazon’s Kindle Store terms of use, “Kindle content is licensed, not sold”. If you try to remove the DRM (not hard to do, actually) or transfer your purchase to another device, Amazon may legally “revoke your access to the Kindle Store and the Kindle Content without refund of any fees.”

This particular type of evil is traceable to the software industry. They introduced the concept which you see expressed at the beginning of every EULA for proprietary software “This software is licensed, not sold”. Note the identical language here? This was a questionable practice when done by the software industry, and court cases have gone both ways on whether this is enforceable. And a well-crafted court case might over-throw Amazon’s use of this tactic since they clearly say you are “Buying” when you are on the Web site or purchasing from within the app or Kindle device. But that is not what I rely on. And while I know how to break DRM, and anyone sufficiently motivated can find out how to do that with a little Googling, I don’t think that is the optimal response either.

To me the optimal response would be one that punished companies that impose DRM and take ownership away from you even though you give them your hard-earned money. And the only way to do that is not do business with them. You see, if you buy an e-book from Amazon and then break the DRM, you haven’t sent any kind of message to them. If instead you patronize a seller that does not impose DRM, you send a signal that you will pay for products that respect your freedom. Fortunately, that is increasingly possible where e-books, audiobooks, and music are concerned. But this is a strategy that is not without its drawbacks, so you need to understand the trade-offs and go into this with your eyes open.

The first thing to understand is that it is primarily the publishers and rights-holders that insist on the DRM. Some of them have discovered that removing DRM does them no harm, and may do them some good. And if these companies start to see increased sales from dropping DRM and giving you back the rights you would normally have with a physical product, it might move the rest of the industry to stop being so evil. What rights do we mean? Well, if I buy a CD I can lend it to my friend. If I buy a book I can sell it to a used book store when I am done. When I die, I can pass along my books and CDs to my heirs. They may just sell them all, but the point is that I have ownership rights to any physical product that allow me to own the product and act accordingly. When those products become digital and you encounter the “this product is licensed not sold” what has just happened is that all of your rights have been removed.

Because some rights holders have become enlightened, but others have not, the main trade-off you would encounter is that some products you might want to purchase are not available in ways that respect your freedom. For some people that might be a deal-breaker, but for me it is not. If I want to buy music, there is so much good stuff available to me that I could never get enough money to buy it all. But if I specifically want to buy the latest hit track that is on the top of the charts I may not be able to do it if the record company is one of the troglodytes. As it happens I am one of those curmudgeons who thinks most of the music that is “popular” today is crap anyway, so I don’t really mind. As long as I can find lots of music I like to listen to, I am happy. Same thing with books (both e-books and audiobooks). I can only read or listen to so many books in the time I have (for me, time is more of a limit than money for these things). I can find more books than I have time for, books that I really want to read/listen to, without giving up my rights. But again, if I wanted to get the latest #1 book on the New York Times bestseller list, I might not be able to get it in a format that respects my freedom. For me, I don’t care. I figure it is their loss when I don’t buy their book. But this is the essential trade-off you will encounter if you go for freedom, you will have to occasionally accept that some products are just not available on those terms. My hope is that if enough people do value freedom enough to deliberately make those purchases, this will send a two-pronged market signal: publishers that do not respect your freedom will see sales go down, and publishers that do respect your freedom will see sales go up. As an example, the recent Humble e-book bundle, which was DRM-free files that do respect your freedom, sold so many copies that each book in the bundle would have qualified as a New York Times bestseller if the New York Times counted e-books. Which they will eventually when they solve their rectal-cranial insertion problem. So how do you do this? Fortunately it is not that hard. I will mention some of the options, but the good news is that there are so many options available that I cannot list them all.


The first question here is whether you are looking for traditionally sold-by-the-record-company tracks or the more indie Creative Commons self-published tracks. Both have their options, including some that are hybrids.

Major Label tracks, online storage and streaming

  • eMusic – Monthly subscription lets you buy tracks priced at $.49 – $.79. No DRM. Tracks are from record labels, and a lot of back catalog is available.
  • Amazon – Bad as they are with e-books and audiobooks, they sell tracks from the major labels without DRM. A little more expensive than eMusic, but more likely to have that one track you must must have if eMusic doesn’t have it. Also offers online storage and streaming of your tracks.
  • iTunes – iTunes, which initially sold tracks with DRM, switched to selling tracks without DRM beginning in 2007. So this is an option as well. Does not currently offer online storage and streaming, but this may arrive in 2013 according to news reports.
  • Google Play – Also offers DRM-free tracks form the record labels.Also offers online storage and streaming of your tracks.
  • Ubuntu One – Yet another DRM-free source for major label tracks.Also offers online storage and streaming of your tracks.

Indie and Creative Commons

  • Soundcloud – This is a music and audio sharing site, primarily.
  • Free Music Archive – Lots of CC-licensed music.
  • Jamendo – One of the premiere CC music sites.
  • Bandcamp – I just learned about this site from my friend Craig Maloney, who does the Open Metal Cast. This site has Creative Commons music from bands who want to build a relationship with their fans and sell them music. Good artists like Amanda Palmer are here.


When it comes to books, you really are at the mercy of the individual publishers. Most music labels have finally come to accept that no DRM is the best way to go, but must book publishers are still being dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming. But there are some good places to find e-books that respect your freedom.

  • Project Gutenberg – This is the granddaddy of the DRM free book sites. Project Gutenberg makes available books that are in the Public Domain, i.e., where the copyright has run out. These are mainly older books, but a lot of classics are in here. They make books available in all of the major formats.
  • Baen Books – This publisher specializes in the harder Science Fiction, but they really understand the new media landscape. They not only offer most of their books DRM-free and in multiple formats, but they also have the Baen Free Library, where they offer selected books free of charge. The hope is that with the first taste free, you will want to buy more. And it works. I went there to see what they had, discovered that they had the entire collected works of one of my favorite authors (James H. Schmitz) for sale, and bought the lot of them.
  • Tor/Forge – A major publisher in the Science Fiction and Fantasy fields, they just moved to going DRM free a few months ago. They did this because other publishers had been successful in so doing.
  • Angry Robot – Along with Baen, a pioneer in selling DRM-free books in the Science Fiction and Fantasy fields.
  • Avon Romance – A major publisher of romance novels, they just announced that they are experimenting with DRM-free ebook sales.
  • O’Reilly Media – The premiere publisher of technical books, they pretty get everything right. They sell e-books without DRM. When a new edition of a book you already bought comes out you can “upgrade” for a nominal fee (e.g. I upgraded my Kevin Purdy “Android” book for $1). And with older books that they think are no longer worth in print, they are removing the copyright and making them freely available.
  • ManyBooks.net – This site has a lot of overlap with Project Gutenberg, but also has some newer works that have been made available, such as Charles Stross’s Accelerando.
  • Fictionwise – Although heavy on the Science Fiction and Fantasy, has a lot of offerings in other genres as well. Reasonably priced and DRM-free.
  • Cory Doctorow – Cory was one of the first authors to make a point of offering all of his works not only DRM-free but free of charge in e-book formats from his Web site. But you know, when the book he co-authored with Charles Stross Rapture of the Nerds came out recently I went to the Google Play store and bought it.
  • DriveThru Fiction – An interesting site that also has Comics and RPG games available.
  • Apress – A publisher of technical books that also offers reduced-price e-books if you have already purchased the print title. This is something I’d like to see more of.
  • Packt Publishing – Another technical book publisher with DRM-free books.


This is where there is still a big disappointment. Audible, which is by any measure the clear leader here, insists on DRM on all of their books, which is why I refuse to get an account. Audible is now owned by Amazon, which sells music tracks as MP3 files without DRM, so there was hope when they bought Audible that we could get DRM-free audiobooks, but that was not the case. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

  • eMusic – This is the same site I mentioned above for DRM-free musci tracks. They also offer a subscription plan for audiobboks, $10 a month gets you one book. Selection is not as good as Audible, but their list is growing all of the time and I have had no trouble finding books there that interest me. I recently listened to Walter Isaacson’s biogrpahy of Albert Einstein through a book I bought here.
  • Podiobooks – This site offers audiobooks in serialized form, much like podcasts offer you a file every week. Heavy on the Science Fiction and Fantasy at this point, but worth checking out. Scott Sigler and J.C. Hutchins are both available here, for instance.
  • Scott Sigler – Scott used free content to get his name out, but still offers free audio versions on his web site even though he now has a publisher.
  • Cory Doctorow – Cory in addition to offering free ebooks also offers audiobooks that are DRM-free on a “name your own price” basis. Among the readers on his books are Neil Gaiman, Wil Wheaton, Spider Robinson, and Leo Laporte. He even sells files and CDs in Ogg format if you prefer to get your files that way. Due seriously gets freedom, but if you know anything about Cory Doctorow you know that.


This is a really long post already, so I will keep the conclusion brief. First, as I said above, the alternatives are not always perfect. Particularly with Audiobooks your selection is less than if you were willing to give your rights away. But there are enough that you can always find stuff you will enjoy. Second, I probably missed many of the alternatives. The marketplace is changing rapidly and I don’t always know everything going on. I just wanted to demonstrate that there are a sufficient number of viable alternatives that you don’t have to sacrifice your freedom. So if you do get caught by DRM, it is because you chose to. Third, while some of these offerings are free of charge, that is not the point. I selected items on the basis of respecting your rights and freedoms, and most of them require payment. In fact, that is the point. As Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor books pointed out, it was the commercial success of publishers that offered DRM-free books that got his company to try the experiment. We don’t move the market by trying to find ways to not pay. We move the market by voting with our dollars for products that respect us. I hope I have given you enough ideas that you can help us to move to a DRM-free world.

Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!

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