Buyer becomes victim: When online piracy protection abuses users’ rights

Over the past couple of months, a number of rather odd confessions of piracy have been appearing on Twitter. “How about we all stop using pirated iOS apps? I promise to stop. I really will. #softwarepirateconfession,” they declare, much like a kid reluctantly apologising in the principal’s office. But for many of the supposed repentants, the confession came as a surprise. They, like Jenn Frank, who wrote about her experience, had actually paid for the app.

It turns out that Enfour, the developer Oxford University Press had hired on to build the ODE app, deployed anti-piracy measures that detect what the app believes to be illegal use and reports this use over Twitter in an attempt to publicly shame the user. Where this becomes especially problematic is that, like any computer program, this app is prone to bugs and, as happened here, these bugs sometimes result in a false positive, which then punishes the user with no option of appeal.

Enfour’s actions are part of a disturbing trend in the electronic publishing industry. Amazon has famously removed purchased books from users’ personal libraries, and HarperCollins has demanded that the ebooks they sell to libraries expire after only 26 readings, giving the ebook an even shorter lifespan than the cheapest paperback copy.

These incidents demonstrate the dangers of companies that abuse the digital nature of ebooks in order to exert control over the content they distribute long after it’s been purchased, in ways that aren’t consistent with the way we use print books. Enfour’s anti-piracy measures are an even further escalation of highly invasive digital practices, as they go well beyond simply preventing you from using a product in a way the manufacturer disagrees with. Enfour’s measures actually use your own personal information—in this case your Twitter account and followers list—as a weapon against you in a public forum.

As it stands, the balance of power is tipped in favour of the publishers, as copyright law allows publishers to implement technical protection measures like those employed by Enfour without ensuring those measures respect the rights of readers. As such, it is on us to contact those companies like Oxford UP and Enfour and convince them of the error of their ways. Already some groups, such as the Librarians Against DRM who have drafted a Readers’ Bill of Rights for Digital Books, have begun to do exactly this. While publishers should not have to simply accept piracy, neither should they enact measures that will inevitably punish the innocent.

About the author

Matt Schneider

Matt Schneider (@mattlaschneider) is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he studies videogames and digital materiality. He is currently living in Lethbridge, Alberta.

By Matt Schneider