Note: This letter will be printed out and mailed to Random House as soon as I am satisfied with it (and can find out to whom it should be directed). Any suggestions for improvement will be appreciated.

Customer Service
Random House Inc.
1745 Broadway
New York, NY 10019-4305

Dear Random House Customer Service:

Provoked by Packaging

image I am writing to express my extreme displeasure with one of your products: The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl, which I recently purchased as a Fictionwise e-book. I am not upset with the content of the book, as I have not yet read it. I am upset with its packaging.

Under United States law, as set forth by legal code and court decisions, I should have the right to make full fair use of the book. This includes “space-shifting” it to read on any computer or other device that I own (as per RIAA vs. Diamond Multimedia, which held that “space-shifting” a work is fair use). However, your use of digital rights management (DRM), by releasing the book in Secure Mobipocket format, prevents me from doing this.

Although Fictionwise allows readers to register up to four different Mobipocket clients on which an ebook can be read, there is no official Mobipocket client for either my Nokia 770 Internet tablet or my Ubuntu Linux laptop. There is FBReader, but it will only read unencrypted Mobipocket files. Therefore, if I wanted to read your book on those devices—which is, again, a perfectly legal fair use of your work—I would have to break another law: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Although I have no interest in violating the copyright of the book by putting it on peer-to-peer networks or Web sites—I feel that authors deserve to be paid for their work—the mere act of using the book in ways that should be legal would require me to violate the DMCA. (Actually, it is arguable whether it even would be a DMCA violation, under the “interoperability” clause that permits reverse-engineering encryption to make two computer programs work together—but since that clause has not yet been argued in court in a context that would relate to ebooks, and I am not a lawyer in any event, I would be hesitant to stake my legal well-being upon it.)

I was so upset by the DRM restriction that I almost did not buy the book at all. If it had not been on sale at Fictionwise in a promotion that made it essentially free, I would certainly not have done so. That is how much the DRM decreased the value of your book for me—by the entire amount of its purchase price. Even then, I was ambivalent about my purchase because even if I got it “free,” you would still be given some money to support your use of DRM.

DRM is Pointless

Your decision to cripple The Last Theorem with digital rights management is worse than annoying; it is downright pointless—for two reasons.

First, the encryption can easily be broken. In fact, decryptors for all three major encrypted ebook formats—Secure Mobipocket, eReader, and Microsoft Reader—can be located in under five minutes on Google. Thanks to the global nature of the Internet, you could never eradicate those cracks if you tried; there are many nations that do not have laws against removing DRM.

Those who scoff at the DMCA, or do not have such a law in their country, will think nothing of cracking the encryption and using your books however they want to. To some, the mere fact that you put DRM on it will serve as a goad to make it available on peer-to-peer out of spite when they would otherwise not have done so.

Second, even if the encryption on your ebooks was perfect and unbreakable, it still would not matter. You cannot protect ink and paper. If someone really wants to post your book on the Internet, they will get a copy of the hardcover, a bandsaw, and a sheet-feeding scanner, and your book will be making its way through the peer-to-peer networks within hours. J.K. Rowling and her publishing companies discovered this for themselves when they adamantly refused to release any Harry Potter ebooks due to piracy concerns, yet complete copies of each Harry Potter book were nonetheless circulating on the Internet within hours of its release.

Thus, your decision to lock The Last Theorem (and any other ebooks you publish) is highly counterproductive: it only inconveniences and irritates law-abiding customers. The less law-abiding will just crack it or download a copy from peer-to-peer—or might even skip buying it altogether in favor of an illicit download.

Positive Examples

Consider Baen Books, which has been selling its books through Webscriptions and even giving them away free for years now, with no digital rights management. Not only have they sold more paper books this way, but they have built up a devoted following of readers. And hardly any of their non-free books can be found circulating illicitly, even though there is no DRM to be cracked. Because Baen respects its customers, its customers respect it in return.

Now Tor is starting to follow Baen’s example, recently giving away two dozen ebooks free and unDRMed as a promotion, and gearing up to sell unDRMed books through Baen’s Webscriptions program. Cory Doctorow has given away, without DRM, an ebook of every novel he has ever written and has sold large numbers of his books as a result.

Many of the books Fictionwise sells are in unencrypted formats—they only apply encryption when publishers (such as Random House) specifically request it. They certainly seem in no danger of going out of business—in fact, they recently bought one of their oldest competitors, eReader.

By locking your books with digital rights management, you are only hurting your own business and annoying your customers for no actual gain. Your DRM provides no useful protection, so you might as well release your books without it and stop treating your customers as potential thieves. Quite apart from the uselessness of digital rights management, it is also rather insulting.

Trust begets trust. If you unlock your books, you will also broaden your market.


Christopher E. Meadows


  1. I do really not see the point of posting such a ranting letter. Your legal arguments are not correct – there is no requirement that content purchased to work with one device should work with others. Whether DRM is in Random Houses best interest is another question.

  2. The very lightweight social watermarking of the DRM free songs on iTunes Plus (your email address is embedded in the song metadata) is enough for me. I buy eReader books with DRM because the key to unlock is (mostly) under my control, though no DRM would be better. I won’t buy Mobipocket or MS Reader because the DRM is keyed to hardware and you rely on the vendor continuing to allow you access when you change devices.

    It has always puzzled me just who the book publishers are afraid of when they insist on such draconian DRM measures. As you point out, the DRM can be cracked easily and scans of books are also available. It would be impossible to prove what effect these have on sales of authorised books (paper or electronic), but I would guess it would be extremely small. Why not target the small, relatively tech savvy bunch of people who have ebook readers with cheap DRM-free eBooks (stamped with their name). iTunes has proven that people will buy electronic copies of stuff if the process is easy, and not too restrictive

    When I finish reading a paper book I can (and do) lend it to other people. Perhaps that is what they don’t want to happen – people giving their copies away. Then why not setup a scheme where you can give your ebook to a friend and they can then redeem that for their own copy with a discount? If this means that only a few people pay full price and everybody else gets a discount, so what? All the discounted sales are a bonus anyway!!

  3. I am in the process of publishing a book at the moment, which will appear both in print and in electronic form (Mobipocket). Unfortunately, Mobipocket’s software does not allow the publisher to make the ebook available through ebookbase without drm applied.

    So even if the publisher and I think that the ebook should become available without any restrictions, the ebookbase system doesn’t allow us to do so. So either we don’t offer the ebook at all, or we offer it with drm applied. We opt for the second option. I guess the same is true for Random House.

  4. Steve: The decision in RIAA vs. Diamond Multimedia established that “to render portable, or ‘space-shift,’ those files that already reside on a user’s hard drive” was a fair use permissible under the law, just as Sony vs. Universal Studios held that consumers are allowed to “time-shift” TV shows with a VCR (and subsequently TiVo). Technically that may not be a right but a defense, but either way it is something that the courts have said consumers are legally allowed to do—or at least would be if the DMCA didn’t trump it. (Though IANAL and all that.)

    Wiebe: ebookbase may have those restrictions, but Fictionwise sells many titles in “multiformat,” including unrestricted Mobipocket. So does Baen.

  5. It seems to me that it’s not DRM preventing you from “shifting” it’s lack of player support. That’s like complaining that your DRM protected DVD’s won’t play in a CD player.

    Asking the MobiPocket people to support more platforms may be a better way to go.

  6. Robin: That’s not a good analogy. Even a non-DRM-protected DVD won’t play in a CD player. They’re not compatible formats.

    However, there is a Mobipocket-compatible ebook reader available for Linux. It’s called FBReader, and it reads unencrypted Mobipocket books just fine. Whereas an unencrypted DVD would not play in a CD player, an unencrypted Mobipocket book will open just fine in FBReader. It is only the encryption that keeps me from using it. (Though, come to think of it, I did not make that clear in the letter when I wrote it. I will amend it to do so.)

    If you want to talk about DVDs, it’s more like complaining that your DRM-protected DVDs won’t play on Linux, due to the lack of availability of DVD decryption on Linux. Due to the licensing restrictions on DVD’s CSS encryption, an open source decrypting DVD player couldn’t be created until hackers broke CSS encryption with DeCSS, which in turn led to the creation of the libdvdcss library.

    Here’s where things get weird. According to the Wikipedia entry linked above, libdvdcss is possibly legal (or at least it has not yet been litigated) because of the DMCA’s interoperability provision—it’s okay to crack encryption for the purpose of making one computer program interoperate with another. So I can watch DVDs on my Linux box with no problem, because the decryption is done automatically.

    But oddly enough, it’s apparently not kosher for me to do the same with ebooks because I would be decrypting them manually and copying the files over—it wouldn’t be software “interoperating.” (Though I’m not a lawyer and that interpretation could be completely off-base.)

    (Hmm. I wonder if a “libmobidedrm” were made and put into FBReader, if it would be legal under the same principle? Maybe I’ll start a discussion about that on the ebook mailing list.)

  7. It’s sent! I copied the current version into Word, removed the hyperlinks, printed it, and sent it on its way. I expect it to reach New York in a few days. I included the URL to this posting as a “Cc:” at the bottom of the letter.

    I wonder if I will get a response, and if so whether it will be a form letter. I certainly don’t expect any kind of a sea change in the publishing industry, but still, it’s nice to send in an actual printed letter that they can hold in their hands.

    It’s kind of ironic that even in this era of the ebook and lightning-fast email, letters printed on paper and signed with a pen can still have a greater psychological impact.

    Here’s some homework for you, Telereaders! Find a publisher whose ebooks are DRM’d and write a snail letter to them explaining how their use of DRM either turns you away from purchasing their books, or else makes you dissatisfied with the user experience.

    (And by “publisher” I do not mean Fictionwise or eReader—they are happy to leave DRM off if the print publisher does not specifically request it to be added. I mean the print publishers who submit their work through them.)

    It may not change much, but it will make you feel better.

  8. Sorry, I know it was a bit weak (although stronger when I thought you were saying there was no reader for Linux, DRM or otherwise). My point was that anyone could come along and make a Reader for Linux (or add DRM support to the current reader) and suddenly your file would work there – through no action of the publisher.

    Neither Peter Jackson nor New Line makes the hardware or software for DVD playback, why complain to them if your Lord of the Rings DVD’s don’t play in your Wii? (Although apparently you can now download a hack/patch that will let them play).

    I think your other arguments against DRM are enough, even if there was only a single app and a single device in all the world that supported e-book files.

    May I also say, I’m generally against DRM. I also work for a large educational publisher. My higher ups have asked if we can DRM the e-book products we sell on CD and DVD a few times. Each time I tell them the cost in time and money balanced against the hassle for customers, and the little good it’s likely to do, means DRM is just not worth it. So far they have listened to me. We just include a license instead. I don’t have much influence on the trade side though unfortunately. 🙁

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