Open letter to Audible and Amazon: Stop the DRM

Audible - Amazon - has a near-monopoly on the world's audio books. Author Violet Blue argues that its DRM harms authors, readers - and Amazon.
Written by Violet Blue on

Audible, owned by Amazon Inc., has the largest catalog of audio books in the world. Its DRM only allows consumers to play books on three "Audible Ready" devices.

Audible's DRM is a greedy, outdated way of cheating customers

When Audible was purchased by Amazon Inc. in 2008 most authors and audio book consumers hoped that Amazon would stop Audible's widely-hated practice of crippling the use of authors' audio books with Digital Rights Management (DRM).

Amazon didn't.

They're now one of the last DRM hold-outs.

After conducting tests with DRM-free audiobooks, in 2008, mega-publisher Random House abandoned DRM on its digital books altogether.

In early 2007, an open letter from Steve Jobs called on record companies to stop using DRM on their audio files; in 2009 Apple officially abandoned DRM for its iTunes music store over two years ago.

Amazon's own music downloads don't have DRM - this made big news when they ditched DRM in 2008.

So if consumers want to buy books to use on various, specific devices, why would Audible (Amazon) stop them?

As the EFF explains DRM,

Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies attempt to control what you can and can't do with the media and hardware you've purchased.

  • Bought an ebook from Amazon but can't read it on your ebook reader of choice? That's DRM. (...)

Corporations claim that DRM is necessary to fight copyright infringement online and keep consumers safe from viruses.

But there's no evidence that DRM helps fight either of those.

Instead DRM helps big business stifle innovation and competition by making it easy to quash "unauthorized" uses of media and technology.

Audible disallows conversion of audio book files into MP3 files, telling customers that Audible's DRM prevents this to ensure the Audible experience of playback performance on its approved list of "Audible Ready" devices.

Now that Amazon is also Android, and Amazon's digital books have text to speech options in Kindle devices, it remains to be seen why DRM is still part of any kind of long-tail business plan.

Three devices: re-purchase is a certainty

A limitation of three devices is unrealistic, and by now Audible - Amazon - knows it.

A reader (listener) buys a book and wants to listen to it on their home computer.

And their tablet, away from the desk or in the kitchen while cooking. In the cafe on their laptop.

On their phone during a train or bus commute. In their car during a drive. Or at the gym, or a maybe flight with their iPod/mobile MP3 player.

That's six everyday use devices in typical situations.

Audible's DRM is bad for readers and consumers

DRM makes buying and using audio books harder.

If a reader (listener) wants to enjoy their book they're only able to chose three out of six of the above everyday device scenarios - for a book they purchased, and should rightfully own.

An audio book is still a book. It's just 'printed' on a different kind of paper.

All rights to the buyer should apply, and a buyer shouldn't have to buy a book twice just because the bookseller says so.

In 2007, I worked with my book agent on a potential deal with Audible. I said that if I were to agree to Audible's terms, I wanted to know about their DRM policy, as I was well aware of the customer anger Audible's DRM had engendered - and did not want my reputation tied to it.

We had a conference call with reps from Audible. I asked them about their DRM policy.

I was told it was important to keep because they needed to protect against file sharing. One person on the call casually commented, "We're really kind of hoping some kid doesn't hack it."

Except it's not 'some kid' who wants to listen to The Omnivore's Dilemma on the way to work, at their desk, on the plane, when someone else is on the computer and they have to multitask, or when their hands are full with the baby.

The people who listen to audio books are also people who are blind or have limited sight, are dyslexic, are ADHD, are people who have limited mobility - and access on multiple devices means so much more than anyone will ever know.

The people who listen to audio books are are fans of books. They are all of us.

Audible's DRM is futile

Search Google, look at Reddit and other forums and sites, and you'll find dedicated readers and listeners who simply want to put the books they purchased from Audible on their MP3 player.

You'll also find out quickly just how aggressive and litigious Audible is to protect its DRM.

Over the years a number of software makers have come along to remove the Audible DRM encoding to make audio book files user-friendly.

Audible has always been swift to threaten software makers, devs and bloggers with lawsuits for promoting - or even discussing - the ability to remove Audible's DRM.

As one commenter put it on Reddit in a thread about trying to listen to their Audible book outside the DRM, "It's easier to torrent and steal the book than to play it on my car stereo."

Thanks for that, Audible (Amazon).

Audible's DRM is bad for authors

Audible's DRM poisons my relationship with my readers and fans.

I'm the 'little guy' whose work is traded off of in this ridiculous charade wherein companies use dated, anti-consumer and anti-artist racketeering-style business tactics instead of evolving their business models.

In addition to being a tech journalist, blogger and podcaster, I'm still an author and anthology editor with dozens of books in print in many languages - the old fashioned way to be a writer. 

My main print publisher is an indie, women-run small business. Making a deal with Audible to get their titles into the audio book game was a necessary step to expand their catalog into a digital goods market that an indie can't afford not to be in nowadays.

When a consumer buys one of my books on Audible, my indie publisher and I get some change - and that's great.

But my reader, who now has a direct relationship with me, the author, gets a bag of digital candy mixed with arsenic.

As an author it is embarrassing that someone would purchase my book knowing that instead of enjoying the work freely, they will almost certainly soon have a technical experience of frustration, anger and disappointment - an experience that has nothing to do with me, or the book.

Why would I send anyone to Audible and do that to my readers - especially if I want them to ever buy my work again?

Oh, right. Because Audible is pretty much the only game in town.

The DRM on my books as distributed through Audible is placed there without my consent.

Dear Audible, Amazon: stop the DRM racket. Now.


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