Has Microsoft Killed Digital Property?

In a barely noticed FAQ, Microsoft announced that it is rescinding the book sales it made at its Microsoft Store. The store stopped selling books back in 2017, but in April 2019, the company quietly notified the public that the books previously purchased were being deleted. Microsoft is not providing a refund, but instead giving its former customers a Microsoft store credit. Here is an excerpt from the announcement:

Starting April 2, 2019, the books category in Microsoft Store will be closing. Unfortunately, this means that starting July 2019 your ebooks will no longer be available to read, but you’ll get a full refund for all book purchases. You can continue to read your books until July 2019 when refunds will be processed.

Refunds will be credited back to your Microsoft account for use online in Microsoft Store.

The closure has the potential to be far more disruptive for those unlucky researchers that relied on their Microsoft books for extensive annotations. Teachers, researchers, and others may have used the functionality of the eReader to embed their working notes. Microsoft is providing a $25.00 credit, which is probably not a realistic payment for the time and effort to export the notes before the books disappear. For others, who made the occasional margin reference, this will be a bonus coupon.

Given the failure of this marketplace, the news does not seem that dire. It provides an important reminder, however, that licensing the use of a digital file managed under a digital rights management system does far more than protect the producers from piracy. It transforms every sale into a limited license, stripping the consumer of basic commercial rights. Protecting from piracy is appropriate and necessary. However, when the technology is used for predatory practices or for ham-fisted, anti-consumer behavior, the companies should be held accountable.

The public is largely giving up on “owned” content. In music, 75% of the revenue is from streaming. There are over 50 million online video subscriptions as compared to the 180 cable subscriptions, and one remaining Blockbuster. Amazon has deleted books on Kindle and Apple has deleted movies on iTunes, so Microsoft is not the only bad actor. (Google’s YouTube, of course is predatory in so many other ways, that it doesn’t get its picture on this particular hall of shame.)

But killing ownership is not the better solution. Instead, simple commercial laws should require that companies do not disable or delete products unless the contract makes very clear that it is a lease or rental agreement that specifies a clear end date. Sales and rentals are two very different transactions. DRM was never intended to convert sales into terminable rental on the whim of the seller.

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