Why Steve Jobs opposed DRM

In February 2007, Steve Jobs published an open letter titled “Thoughts on Music”, advocating for the abandonment of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Two months later, EMI was the first to give up DRM, and other major record companies followed suit, creating a market for open and interoperable digital music formats.

The story is quite attractive, portraying Jobs as the hero who saved the market, which fits the taste of Apple fans. However, those who know Jobs a bit better may find it somewhat inconsistent. Jobs had always embraced closed systems and advocated for complete control over the user experience. So why did he make an exception this time and advocate for the abandonment of DRM?

DRM’s true protection is for platform monopolies

Let’s look back at history. In September 2007, Amazon launched its digital music service in the United States, selling over 2 million DRM-free songs from more than 20,000 record companies, including EMI and Universal.1

The service involved numerous collaborations, and Amazon was a massive company. Major record companies made decisions cautiously and took time. It doesn’t seem likely that they could accomplish it in just a few months. It is reasonable to assume that at the time Jobs published his open letter, the intention to abandon DRM was already formed among the record companies, or at the very least, it was being considered. Instead of believing that Jobs persuaded the record companies to open up digital music formats with just one letter, it is more plausible to think that Apple foresaw the record companies’ intentions and decided to send out the open letter ahead of time to shape the image of a savior of open music ecology. Let’s not forget that Jobs is not only a business genius but also a master storyteller.2

However, why did the conservative record companies decide to open up music formats if it wasn’t because of Apple’s persuasion? In early 2007, CDs were still the primary music medium overall. However, Apple had already become the third-largest music sales channel in the U.S. market with just digital music, accounting for 10% of sales, slightly behind CD sales at Walmart and Best Buy.3 When considering digital music alone, the iPod accounted for over 70% of the player market and even higher music sales4, leaving Microsoft, Sony and other competitors far behind. Apple’s iPod, iTunes, and FairPlay DRM technology not only locked in users but also the record companies. If they didn’t sell to Apple, would they give their content to a competitor with only a few percent of market share? Moreover, even though digital music was just getting started at the time, the trend of gradually replacing CDs was already evident.

In essence, the record companies abandoned DRM not because Apple convinced them, but because they feared Apple’s dominance, which would leave them completely powerless in negotiations. Jobs revealed the fact that DRM could not effectively suppress pirated music but didn’t mention the inconvenient truth: DRM’s real effect was to help platform monopolies control the market.

Ironically, in 2007, under the banner of openness, Amazon challenged Apple’s monopoly by providing DRM-free music. However, Amazon transferred this equation to e-books and almost monopolized the global e-book market with the Kindle, relying on economies of scale and DRM as a moat. Apple introduced iBooks (later renamed Apple Books) in 2010, but it never posed a real threat to Amazon. Of course, this can be understood as Apple not caring about small markets.

DRM restricts users’ legitimate usage

Some might argue that it’s fair for businesses to form a moat with competitive advantages, as long as it doesn’t constitute unfair competition. Here, let’s delve into the evil of DRM.

The most obvious problem with locking e-books with DRM is the restriction of users’ rights. Kindle’s withdrawal from China highlighted the fact that “purchasing” e-books essentially meant renting them rather than owning them. Unfortunately, most people still don’t feel this, as they don’t worry about their commonly used platforms shutting down abruptly. “Pain only comes when the needle pierces the flesh”, so the Cantonese saying goes. It’s hard to imagine suddenly losing the books, annotations, and notes you’ve been aggregating for years.

However, the restrictions on e-books for readers go beyond just the inability to take them with you. For example, AI technology is now so advanced that text-to-speech services are becoming increasingly mature. For people like me who spend a long time staring at screens, taking a walk while listening to a book is a joyful activity. But in the current closed garden, most users can only purchase additional audiobooks. While having authors or professionals narrate books can be seen as an additional service, users should also have the right to use text-to-speech tools to listen to the books they bought. Otherwise, it’s a form of castration.

Another common need is sharing. Various reasonable and normal ways of circulating paper books, such as sharing among family members, lending to friends, selling or BookCrossing after reading, are all restricted in the e-book ecosystem due to DRM. This is another evil of DRM. Locked e-books are like “soul-bound tokens,” attached only to the purchaser. For e-book platforms, this may be a feature, but for users, it’s clearly a bug. It not only restricts users’ freedom but also hinders the lateral dissemination and vertical preservation of knowledge.

Locking e-books with DRM doesn’t only affect users’ rights when a specific platform closes. Compared to open-format e-book files, DRM e-books suffer from all sorts of functional and operational limitations.

DRM contributes to information surveillance

Taiwan’s largest e-book platform, Readmoo, publishes an annual reading report every year, detailing various data such as top ten bestsellers, number of readers, reading time, etc. According to the 2022 report5, Readmoo has 1.05 million members, readers collectively own 7.478 million books, 1.393 million have been read, and accumulated reading time is 520.308 million minutes, etc. The report has valuable reference value, and as one of the members, I genuinely appreciate Readmoo’s effort to compile and publicize this data for industry reference.

However, here comes the problem: Why does Readmoo have access to so much data, even knowing the reading time of each individual? It’s because your and my reading behavior is all recorded and sent to their servers. While you are reading books, the system is also reading you, and it knows you better than you know yourself. Taiwanese people are very concerned about the new eID (digital identity card), worrying about the theft and misuse of personal information, but they are surprisingly tolerant of data collection by corporations.

I don’t have Readmoo’s hardware e-reader; I use the Android and iPad versions of the Readmoo app. I tried to turn off the setting that sends data to the server, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find it. In a time where individual data privacy is highly emphasized, the fact that uploading reading data is not an opt-in but rather an opt-out feature makes me uncomfortable. I may not particularly mind disclosing my personal reading behavior and may even voluntarily participate in statistics, but the system doesn’t give me the option to keep my privacy while reading. Instead, it locks my normal rights, thanks to DRM.

I am not specifically targeting Readmoo, and I don’t know if other platforms collect reader data to the same extent, possibly even more thoroughly, although they might not be as generous in publishing the data. In fact, in the issue of DRM, Readmoo handles it relatively well, as one of the few platforms that allow publishers not to lock e-books. Additionally, the website has a DRM-free section6, listing all the unlocked books, which is praiseworthy. For those who believe that “locked = anti-piracy,” I suggest comparing the books in Readmoo’s DRM-free section to the locked ones and considering how they can explain the differences.

In reality, mainland China has long had similar investigations to Readmoo’s annual reading report (when it comes to surveillance, how can you compare?). Alipay started publishing the annual national consumption report many years ago, detailing data such as average spending, spending categories, and consumption time for citizens. People with even a little civic consciousness know that Alipay and banks have the ability to monitor people’s behavior and even freeze their assets. What can truly remain free from surveillance and deprivation is cash in hand; however, I have never heard of anyone refusing to buy e-books to avoid surveillance, including myself.

Although reading may not seem as sensitive as spending behavior, people living in authoritarian countries may not agree. Even in Taiwan, the era when participation in book clubs led to arrests, as depicted in the movie “Detention”, was just over 40 years ago, and many people have experienced it personally. In fact, the logic of digital data and assets is essentially the same as that of centralized financial services, and the potential problems of centralized e-book platforms, especially when they lock you in with DRM, are equally applicable. Even Amazon has shut down user accounts and even remotely wiped data from users’ Kindles.7 For us living in authoritarian countries (or nearby), how can we feel at ease?

To DRM or not to DRM, that is the question

I am not Steve Jobs, and I don’t naively believe that the e-book industry will abandon DRM just because of my two articles. I also understand that whether e-book platforms use DRM or not is not entirely up to me; it largely depends on the publishers’ views. However, I will insist that, even if the platforms don’t advocate openness, offering the choice to publishers instead of forcing them to use DRM is the minimum responsibility.

DRM is a very important issue that has been almost entirely overlooked by society. If you are a publisher or author who has just learned about DRM, I don’t expect you to agree with my views immediately. However, at the very least, DRM should be on the agenda for discussion. Think carefully about the advantages and disadvantages of DRM, who it protects, and who it restricts, and then decide whether to use DRM. Don’t lock e-books without thinking. After all, DRM-free should be the default option; the digital world is inherently open.

If you are an e-book enthusiast, please provide feedback to platforms and publishers. Locked e-books restrict readers’ rights and damage the user experience. Ask publishers to sell e-books in open, universal formats. More proactive users can, like I do, unlock the e-books they bought to defend their basic rights. As long as you don’t illegally distribute them, it is legal. You do no harm to the authors and the publishing industry.

Lastly, and most importantly, writing and publishing are difficult and challenging to make a living from. Please don’t punish publishers and authors with piracy. Buy more books within your means to support creation.

Extended readings

  1. Wikipedia: Amazon Music ↩︎
  2. The Fight Over Digital Rights: The Politics of Copyright and Technology ↩︎
  3. Apple now third-largest U.S. music retailer: survey ↩︎
  4. Wikipedia: iPod ↩︎
  5. 2022 Readmoo Electronic Book Reading Report ↩︎
  6. Readmoo DRM-free Downloads ↩︎
  7. Wired: Remote Wipe of Customer’s Kindle Highlights Perils of DRM ↩︎


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