« My reviews of writing & note-taking iPad apps | Main | Weekly Wordcount Check-in: 250, 500 and 1000 wds/day »

DRM, e-books, and Fictionwise/B&N Removing Access To Books *I Have Already Paid For*

(Before embedding, see my cartoon licensing info.)


A while back, I mentioned that Fictionwise support had e-mailed me saying they were NOT developing a version of their e-reader for the iPad. Disappointed, I thought, "Oh well. At least I'll be able to read my e-books in small iPhone size on my iPad." But then I discovered that some of the e-books I purchased through Fictionwise (a Barnes & Noble company) were now unavailable because of "geographic restrictions." When I tried downloading them for my iPad, I got the error "Territory not authorized."

Nearly a month ago, I wrote to Fictionwise support about the problem. Here's what they wrote back:


We are currently working with our providers to resolve the download errors you are experiencing.

Sorry for any inconvenience this may be causing and thank you for your patience as we attempt to resolve this issue.

Best Regards,

Fictionwise Support Team"

Since then, some of the titles I couldn't access before can now be accessed, but there are still quite a few that remain unavailable.

It's this sort of problem that makes it clear that the e-book industry still needs a lot of work before it has a hope of succeeding. I've already had at least one reader say, "See? This sort of thing is why I don't buy e-books."

DRM, for those that don't know, stands for Digital Rights Management. It's a pretty broad term that's used to refer to techniques for restricting the free use and transfer of digital content. It's meant to control copying of digital files but from what I can tell, it only ends up ticking off the consumer while content thieves find ways around it. It only takes ONE person to crack the code, and all the effort/hassle that has gone into the DRM for a particular item (an e-book, for instance) becomes worthless. Less than worthless, actually, because of the problems encountered by a consumer who LEGITIMATELY BOUGHT the e-book.

A quote from science fiction author Simon Haynes about DRM:

And now for DRM. When you sell someone an encrypted e-book, DVD or computer game, what you’re basically saying is: "Here’s the content you wanted, and by the way we think you’re a thief." The joke is that any thieves have already downloaded pirated copies of the same content, so you’re not inconveniencing them. No, the only people you’re annoying are your paying customers.

Whatever has changed at Fictionwise, whatever the current geographic restrictions placed on certain titles in their store, the fact remains: THESE ARE E-BOOKS I HAVE ALREADY PAID FOR. It has been nearly a month since I last wrote them, when their support staff said they were "working on it."

I'm not the only Fictionwise customer in this situation. If I was running the company, I'd be sending at least one follow-up e-mail a week specifically addressing the issue, keeping my customers up-to-date about what was going on and offering the option of a membership/book refund. I hope someone at Barnes & Noble is paying attention. As the owner of Fictionwise, this reflects poorly on them as well.

I've been trying to be patient but I've pretty much hit my limit. I've written to Fictionwise again today; let's see how/if they respond.

Related resources:

Why DRM Doesn't Work - an illustrated example
SF author Simon Haynes’ case against DRM at Amazon and elsewhere (Teleread)
Why DRM won't ever work (ZDNet)
DRM Doesn't Work - Mark Shuttleworth
How Doesn't DRM Work? - Cory Doctorow

Reader Comments (29)

Charlie Stross has some similar remarks on ebooks and DRM -


May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDunx

Sounds like something straight out of the music industry. Territories are often restricted due to internationalization issues with copyright. Though, it certainly seems like that was a glitch here.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica


I have nothing to add. You said it all perfectly. Especially that part about ticking off legitimate customers.

Just showing moral support.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

I hate to say it, but the only way to ever deal with this is to crack the DRM so you can use the book you purchased wherever you like. In the United States, though, that is illegal because of the DMCA. I'm not familiar with Canada law, but I do know that as of now, there is no equivalent to the DMCA in Canada, which means that cracking the DRM is *probably* legal. (I'm not a lawyer, of course, so take that with a grain of salt).

*sigh* The problem is: You shouldn't *have* to do that. I bet if you check torrents, every one of those books is available, so obviously, the DRM isn't stopping or punishing the pirates. Just the legitimate customers. Why DRM still exists is beyond me.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterdOgBOi

This makes me so cross. The only people who are inconvenienced are the ones who pay for their copies.

Doesn't it strike anyone that this is counterproductive?

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterfairyhedgehog

And that's why I don't buy E-Books. Ever.

And there's another consideration. DRM/TPM wastes power. Ever hear of Climate Change? I posted an article this morning covering the issue:
http://bit.ly/94pRZS" rel="nofollow">Digital Right Management and/or Technical Protection Measures Cause Climate Change.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWayne

This is why I won't use an e-book reader that doesn't allow me to store copies of the books I buy locally. Amazon almost seduced into buying a Kindle before their 1984 fiasco, but that made it clear that I needed local copies, not cloud copies, before I would consider an e-book reader.

As for DRM, it's been taking a little less than a decade for the penny to drop in each industry that adopts it. Once upon a time all commercial software was copy-protected. Then companies discovered as much as 75% (Ashton-Tate's number) of their tech support calls were about the copy protection, not about the software, and now you seldom find any software sold that way.

Music is coming to that realization, as more and more studios are offering DRM-free copies of their MP3's.

Books are just getting started. Expect this continue and get worse for 5-10 years, then they'll understand the point as well.

I don't know why, but every industry seems to think *they* are the exception. Like Bullwinkle, they continually plunge their hands into the DRM hat, knowing that "This time for sure" the trick will work, and they'll catch a rabbit. And they never do. Eventually they learn that.

Lending libraries are the real-world analog to e-book readers that require you to store your books in their cloud. O'Reilly's "Safari" book service is a great example of that in action. Stores allow *me* to control what I purchase.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArlen

I'm very much in favor of paying the people who create the things I enjoy for the work they've done to create them. Yeah, I'm the guy who listens to the free concert, and buys CDs from the band. I'm the guy who downloads free e-books, and buys a printed copy, even if I never read it on paper. I don't seem to be alone either.

There are always going to be people who want to enjoy music, books, movies, pictures and any other creative endeavors for free. I'm not sure we can ever stop them. But more to the point, as a paying customer of the people creating the things these people are pirating, I question the benefit of the measures taken to prevent the piracy.

The software industry in the early days of PCs used all sorts of copy-protection mechanisms. They were a disaster. First of all, they tended to break legitimately installation of software by paying customers. Secondly, in order to make a legitimate backup of the software you had purchase, you had to break the copy-protection. This led to programs whose purpose was to do just that being in widespread use. In the end, the industry has moved to a model where the software itself is easily copied, and requires a license key to be entered when it is installed.

I love listening to music on my iPod. All of it is DRM-free, mostly ripped from CDs that are gathering dust (UT is playing now). I love the convenience of reading e-books on my Palm Pilot. I've been doing it for years now. Some are out-of-copyright and downloaded from http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/" rel="nofollow">Project Gutenberg. Others were made available for free on the http://www.baen.com/library/" rel="nofollow">Baen Free Library.

The only way that I know of to be sure that the artists who create the work that I enjoy are supported is to buy it myself.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDale

Before I bought some books at FictionWise a few years ago, I made sure I was able to de-DRM the files. As soon as I bought them, I un-DRM'ed them, and all has been well.

When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws are free.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterReid Ellis

Interesting to see computer programs moving toward "your rights are like those for a paper book -- you can move it around but you can't use it in more than one place at a time (or some small number)" and counting on the need for ongoing support to keep folks honest, while the e-book publishers are still trying to fight the copyprotection battle and becoming _less_ like books...

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

If you can't use the item they sold you, you should demand your money back.

I mean I could suggest you find a proxy IP server, but those are either not free or not great for bandwidth.

Or you could do what some people do and just download pirated versions of what you've paid for.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlex von Thorn

I should note that using tools like http://pdfkey.com to remove Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) may be illegal in your country (e.g. in the United States because of their DMCA ).

Legislation is on the books to make it equally illegal in Canada, but it has died the last two times it was tried, so here's hoping it dies again..

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterReid Ellis

I still have one DRMed ePUB and almost 1/3 of my DRMed mobi and 1/2 of my DRMed lit ebooks unavailable for download. Since I've seen this before I'd already downloaded and liberated all the files except the one ePub.

DRM and the multitude of formats is absolutely ridiculous. I feel sorry for consumers who aren't technical enough to liberate their books.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRita

Re: software copy protection - the use of copy protection in software has changed, but it is still pretty widespread. Games often have some kind of copy protection on them (eg one publisher has started requiring their games are played with an internet connection active), and Windows is heavily copy protected.

I will say that copy protection is generally less intrusive than it used to be. I remember lots of intricate anti-copying schemes on software in the 80s which required you to enter codes from books and colour grids. These were in some cases so elaborate that they were more interesting than the game they were usually protecting.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDunx

The words "buy" and "DRM" are mutually exclusive. When you pay for a DRM'd product, you're leasing it, no matter what they may call it up front. I don't "buy" any DRM'd books.

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGary McGath

My best friend is launching a book as well as the official *free* torrent accompanying its release. On the torrent site he writes: Thank you for your interest in my book. I've posted this torrent to ensure that you're not spammed or infected by a corrupt version of my book. If you like what you see, return the favor. It's the only way I can keep these coming.

The black market will never upend {insert favorite market here}. It's free publicity waiting to be exploited. Great post ~

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

My publisher recently began formatting most of their books into ebooks due to the market demand. One thing she did in her research was find that DRM ebooks tend to really mess up a lot of things. Downloads were often glitched, what was viewable on one reader was not on another. So after discussion among her authors, it was decided to not have any DRM'd ebooks. Yes, there's a chance that someone who buys an ebook version of my book will pass the digital copy around to all her friends. But, really, I'm not too worried about it.

In my own narrow research, I've found there are 3 viewpoints.
1 - there are those who think ebooks are all the rage and print books are on their way out;
2 - there are those who feel ebooks are more trouble than they are worth and, no, print books are not on their way out; and
3 - what's an ebook again?

May 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaulaO

What is so infuriating (I've got 113 affected books out of my 950 fictionwise and 589 ereader purchases) is that I am in the US and I purchased these legally. I do have scattered copies (on SD cards and on my main desktop) probably of everything and just need a couple of hours to pull together a complete collection) but I shouldn't have to.

(only about 2/3 of the fictionwise stuff is ereader.)

May 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterromsfuulynn

I've been off-and-on in the Kindle debate - I have to say, the idea of carrying a few hundred books on a pad that's smaller and lighter than any copy of Harry Potter sounds simply wonderful. And I have bad eyes and sore neck from too many hours hunched over books - being able to boost a font side and hold something out a few feet would be simply heaven. And I would gladly pay a few dollars to download books this way. I probably wouldn't give it a second thought. I would probably download hundreds of the things - probably wouldn't even read them all. It would be like my Netflix queue - I have to save every movie I "just might like to watch."

I think most readers are like this. We're honest, law-abiding people who will gladly pay for a good book. But if we pay for good books that we can't read, then we become irate. Then we seek out ways to crack the encryption. And then the desire to pay disappears - it becomes a matter of pride that we don't have to pay.

So really, these absurd encryption measures are doing something worse than angering reader - they're turning honest people into the kind of embittered criminals they're so worried about. As some of you have said, trust is pretty important.


May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Edel

I'm a huge huge bookbuyer, from a long line of bookbuyers. I have something on the order of 15,000 paper books of my own, last year moved most of my greatgrandfather/grandfather/mother/father's books from the house my parents lived in for 54 years. (about 240 more boxes of books.)

And I easily own something on the order of 1500-1800 ebooks, legitimately purchased.

And one of the reasons I buy ebooks them is I want to support authors and I'm honest. But I also have done it because it was easy and a better product. My time is worth money and other methods take time.

But we are reaching the point where irc, or usenet are making a lot more sense. Or cracking ones I already own.

And I was pretty much ready to move from my Palm TX to an iPad or a Nook. Not looking as likely.

May 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterromsfuulynn

About disabling DRM, ya, that's the first thing you should do in a private home on a legally purchased item. Then back it up. I've had the same issue with Scrabble word lists. You can't play competitive scrabble until you study a digitally processed list and you can't get a digital list from anyone, you have to find out on forums how to break DRM -- just to play a popular board game (competitively).

May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Kesner

..although I should say that "Regions" aren't just about capitalism. For example, Japan's pop culture is basically walled off from the rest of the world with DRM. People in either culture probably don't usually catch the depth of meaning of this.

May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Kesner

You regularly write interesting, cool posts, but this time I think you outdid yourself. This is an amazing post. I'm sorry you had to write it while being ripped off, and I wish there was better news to convey.

I just had a conversation last night with someone who is looking at buying an e-reader, and tried to tell her about your story and the stories of other people I've been reading/hearing from.

I like the idea of ebooks -- I read non-DRMed ones with the PDF reader on my Nokia internet tablet all the time. But this "must be on this device/read with this software" stuff is nonsense.

As I'm writing this, the latest post is Jeff Kesner's, and he brings up a point I had previously failed to consider: DRM and "regions" cuts us off from culture. In high school, I was one of the kids who saved up to get import Japanese and British copies of LPs (now I'm dating myself!). It never even occurred to me that people can't do the equivalent so easily anymore. Scary.

May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKat

I've had a similar problem with the ebooks that I bought for my Palm. There used to be a site where they were all accessible so it would have been unnecessary to keep local copies. Imagine my surprise when I wanted to transfer them to my ipod and found that there no longer was a site, and that I had no account on the general fictionwise site. Fortunately I had backups of all the books, and with a bit of computer magic was able to download them to my ipod.

I tend to buy only those books as ebooks that I don't mind "losing". But it's really irritating, this sort of thing.

And in your case it's even more irritating. You paid for the book, and now you can't download it anymore. Not good.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusanne

Just to be clear - this (at least in my case and in others I am aware of) is not a case of me now having territory restrictions imposed. These are purchased books that I can't access and the error message says territory, but I am in the US and it isn't a territory issue.

If I have time this weekend I'm hoping to do something about identifying the publishers involved, but it is something beyond being a specific publisher. I just don't know what. eg. insome cases I have books from the same author and same publisher and some are available and some aren't.

I'm not happy that the publisher, from my point of view, has stolen some of the value of 113 books from me.

I'd actually be interested in doing some sort of tracking of this.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterromsfuulynn

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>