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Microsoft’s Ebook Apocalypse Shows the Dark Side of DRM

Your iTunes movies, your Kindle books—they’re not really yours. You don’t own them. You’ve just bought a license that allows you to access them, one that can be revoked at any time. And while a handful of incidents have brought that reality into sharp relief over the years, none has quite the punch of Microsoft disappearing every single ebook from every one of its customers.

Microsoft made the announcement in April that it would shutter the Microsoft Store’s books section for good. The company had made its foray into ebooks in 2017, as part of a Windows 10 Creators

Update that sought to round out the software available to its Surface line. Relegated to Microsoft’s Edge browser, the digital bookstore never took off. As of April 2, it halted all ebook sales. And starting as soon as this week, it’s going to remove all purchased books from the libraries of those who bought them.

Other companies have pulled a similar trick in smaller doses. Amazon, overcome by a fit of irony in 2009, memorably vanished copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles. The year before that, Walmart shut down its own ill-fated MP3 store, at first suggesting customers burn their purchases onto CDs to salvage them before offering a download solution.

But this is not a tactical strike. There is no backup plan. This is The Langoliers. And because of digital rights management—the mechanism by which platforms retain control over the digital goods they sell—you have no recourse. Microsoft will refund customers in full for what they paid, plus an extra $25 if they made annotations or markups. But that provides only the coldest comfort.

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