The Kindle debacle, DRM and SaaS

A blogger who’s a library professional gives more wonderful examples of a subscriber losing access to digital content. But these examples conflate the issues with DRM, and with “software as a service” contracts.

  • Due to an oversight, a bill for an e-book service was paid one day after the due date. As a result, access to about 1000 titles was denied for the entire calendar month.
  • The Library subscribed to an e-journal for a few years, then cancelled the subscription. The publisher removed access to the entire journal; the Library could no longer access even the volumes that it had paid for.
  • An e-book publisher went out of business; the Library lost access to hundreds of titles at once.
  • Sometimes, technical/connection problems occur that make hundreds of titles (they are usually bought in packages) temporary unavailable.

However, these examples conflate several related issues with digital content – DRM and the software as a service model. Part of the problem with the Amazon 1984 is DRM and the associated metadata. When I purchase mp3s from Amazon, I can back them up, and play them in different players. If the file is a generic file without source metadata or locking capability, Amazon couldn’t take the files back if they tried.

This issue is related but different to purchasing content as a service. A better analogy to the library’s digital subscriptions are the “web songs” from The online music service enables you to access music in three formats, CDs, mp3s, and “web songs”, which are available for 10 cents and can be streamed only. I expect that web songs would not outlast Lala’s corporate lifespan, and might go away any moment. Digital subscriptions are more like web songs. They are perpetually dependent on the existence of the provider and the terms of service.

The final issue is contract terms. There is a long tradition of contracts that give you temporary access to you don’t own. This is called “renting” or “leasing”. The library contracts are clearly rental contracts where the agreement is that service will continue as long as the library pays its bill. Rental contracts, of course, can apply to physical objects. You can lease a car, and the leasing company expects the car back when the lease is done, or if you stop paying your bill. If the lease terms are “in perpetuity”, this practically means “for the lifetime of the provider”. And even perpetual lease terms typically allow the provider to change the terms, too.

With “content as a service” buyers need to be especially aware if the service supports content they themselves contributed. When I upload content to a photo sharing service, for example, I explicitly want the right to get my content back at any time.

The issues of DRM and SaaS go together, in that it’s easier with DRM to turn contracts that seem like purchase at first glance into conditional rentals. This is what Amazon appears to have done with the Kindle. When a contract is explicitly a rental contract, the subscriber should expect to be tied to the lifetime and the changing discretion of the provider. When a contract is for downloaded, non-DRM content, it’s at least possible to create a traditional agreement of sale.

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