Undownloading: Further Proof Those eBooks You Paid For Really Aren't Yours

from the upsub dept

Over the years Techdirt has run a number of stories that make it abundantly clear that you don’t own those ebooks you paid for. But in case you were still clinging to some faint hope to the contrary, here’s a cautionary tale from Jim O’Donnell, a classics professor at Georgetown University. He is currently attending the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Singapore, and naturally wanted to bring along some serious reading material; ebooks on an iPad seemed the perfect way to do that. As O’Donnell explains:

when I got here, I noticed that several of my iPad apps had updates on offer, so I clicked and approved. One of them was Google Play. When it finished and I went to open the app, it told me that it needed to update my book files and this might take several minutes.

Pretty standard stuff. But then something unexpected happened:

all of my books had un-downloaded and needed to be downloaded again. The app is an inefficient downloader, almost as bad as the New Yorker app, so I dreaded this, but clicked on the two I needed most at once. (I checked the amount of storage used, and indeed the files really have gone off my tablet.)

And it balked. It turns out that because I am not in a country where Google Books is an approved enterprise (which encompasses most of the countries on the planet), I cannot download. Local wisdom among the wizards here speculates that the undownloading occurred when the update noted that I was outside the US borders and so intervened.

So, it seems that ebook users need to add a new word to their vocabulary: “undownloading” — what happens when you leave the authorized zone in which you may read the ebooks you paid for, and cross into the digital badlands where they are taken away like illicit items at customs. If you are lucky, you will get them back when you return to your home patch — by un-undownloading them.

What makes this tale particularly noteworthy is the way it brings together a host of really bad ideas that the publishing and distribution industries insist on deploying. There’s DRM that means you can’t make backups; there’s the country-specific usage that tries to impose physical geography on your digital ebooks; and there’s the update that spies on you and your system before deciding unilaterally to take away functionality by “undownloading” your ebooks. And copyright maximalists wonder why people turn to unauthorized downloads….

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Comments on “Undownloading: Further Proof Those eBooks You Paid For Really Aren't Yours”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

And reason #39 to never buy ebooks with DRM...

Yet another perfect example of why I refuse to buy ebooks from any author or ‘seller’ that packages them with DRM.

Means I miss out on the ‘big name authors’, as they tend to only ‘sell’ the ebook versions of their stuff on sites like Amazon and B&N, filled to the brim with DRM, but I flat out refuse to pay money for something that can be taken away from me on a whim by the ‘seller’. Ebook pricing equal or higher than dead-tree version pricing doesn’t exactly help their case either…

Still, I suppose in a way I should thank them, their contempt for their customers or potential customers has driven me to check out alternative sources, and enabled me to find countless authors that I would otherwise have never known about.

bigpicture says:

Re: And reason #39 to never buy ebooks with DRM...

Exactly, vote with your money, without customers there would be no publishers, or DRM. I used to read a lot until their real game came to light, which is take away consumer rights, and get in bed with Apple on an anti-trust basis. Now I won’t buy any book from any of them, they lost my trust and produce garbage. TV is next, don’t need to pay big money for unsatisfactory products. (basically garbage)

out_of_the_blue says:


Why did you kids keep raising obvious drawbacks to digital data as though proves copyright is evil?

From my bullet points:

) Possession of authorized physical media is license to access the content anynumber of times (which can be one-at-a-time library use, yet not “public”display). In the absence of physical media, there’s no clear right to access content, only perhaps an authorized temporary permission. But at no time does possession of digital data confer a right to reproduce it outside of the termsand conditions as for physical media, no matter how easy it is to do so.

) Emphasizing an aspect of the just above point: digital data is even less”owned” by the purchaser than with physical media, not more.

Mike supports copyright TOO! So why aren’t you pirates attacking him at every turn? HMM?

S. T. Stone says:


In the absence of physical media, there’s no clear right to access content, only perhaps an authorized temporary permission.

People have consistently chosen to commit illegal acts (e.g. pirating ebooks, stripping DRM) rather than deal with the legal routes: the inane, unreasonable, and sometimes ridiculous restrictions placed upon the access of legally-purchased digital content by copyright holders don?t often work in favor of consumers.

Region-locking and undownloading don?t come off as ?reasonable? restrictions to me.

Ninja (profile) says:


That. I never bought a single ebook because of this idiocy (and the insane pricing). And I will not buy until they change their ways. The other 3 people that have e-readers I know also don’t buy for this same reason. Honestly, if rbooks were like $3-$4 it’s the same of renting a movie or something so it’s worth chipping this amount even if it’s just for experimenting. But $20+? No, thanks.

Blatant Coward (profile) says:


Awwww sweetums, you are so special, Bless. You are confusing and intermingling your digitals.

Baen E-Books provide ‘digital files’ without ‘Digital rights management’. Save them to a hard drive, back them up on a flash, read them on any software that can handle the file, heck even email them to yourself.

This thing, can’t happen to them. Unless they start using “DRM” at that point, they lose me as a paying customer.


cpt kangarooski says:


No, it’s not. A copyright holder cannot grant a license to anyone for a right that he doesn’t have. Copyright doesn’t include a right to control access. Thus, the idea of an access license by statute is an incorrect one. And hard copy books virtually never have EULAs or the like (assuming that they’re even enforceable).

If you lawfully possess a book, you can read it, period. Even if the copyright holder claims you can’t, unless you specifically have that away, which basically no one ever does.

And this foolish misunderstanding of the law is why we need to abolish EULAs and other licenses that would limit end users. Not only are they inherently unacceptable, they lead people to believe that they’re normal and acceptable when they are certainly not.

Anonymous Coward says:


You make less and less sense every time you post.

I don’t think ANY of what you said was relevant to the article. As much as you love dry-humping the content industry as it abuses it’s customers can you at least see that many people who “buy” eBooks would be surprised to find that they may have their physical property (their phone/tablet) tampered with because they moved outside an arbitrary space?

Just because it’s possible (and easy) to do doesn’t make it right. Imagine the shit-storm at customs if all non-authorized books flying to a location were seized and stored until your return. That is the real version of what’s happening here. You seem to be OK with it because, well I can’t see any reasoning in your post, so I’ll assume it’s because you want to be edgy and disagreeable.

The Real Michael says:


Using your own logic, it’s perfectly alright if a private entity, after having made the transaction, unilaterally takes it upon itself to eliminate whatever you’ve purchased.

If that’s the case, would it be perfectly alright for people to unilaterally refund their money from these corporate entities’ bank accounts? You’re not in favor of corporations DEFRAUDING the public, are you?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This is a huge inconvenience (taking eBooks on an overseas holiday is a great way to reduce luggage weight).

If my Kindle had pulled this trick on a recent overseas trip it would have driven me insane. But it never has.

Has anyone ever seen similar with Amazon’s stuff ? How obscure a country does one have to go to, for Google books to not be downloadable ?

I notice that the OP merely speculates that the undownloading was triggered by location.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

An even better question is: why isn’t everybody stripping out the DRM as soon as they buy the book?

Companies that provide DRM-ed media like to say things like “DRM is what allows us to provide you with premium content in an electronic format”. So the people who don’t know any better may think that without DRM, they can’t have the stuff they want. In that case, why would they go looking for ways to remove the DRM? I’m just speculating here but I think it’s very likely.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not knowing how, and/or somehow retaining some manner of respect for a broken law I would guess.

Although I would argue against DRM stripping for ebooks anyway as counterproductive, it’s far more effective to simply not buy any ebooks that come with DRM in the first place, and tell the author that’s why you refuse to buy.

Buying and then stripping the DRM just tells them that though you might complain about the DRM, it’s not enough to actually keep you from buying, so why should they care about the complaints?

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: Re:

An even better question is: why isn’t everybody stripping out the DRM as soon as they buy the book?

What is this magic that you speak of? How many years of training must you have in order to accomplish such a highly technical and complicated feat which is surely beyond the abilities of mere mortals? Is a human sacrifice required or will an animal suffice?

Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Why downloading a copy of the same data is piracy when you bought the original (or in their terms, bought a ‘license’ for the book) already?

What’s the difference between paying the company the price and downloading from their store, and paying the company the price and downloading it from somewhere else? (aside from the saved bandwidth)

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

So what? The same bits smells different when downloaded from a torrent site?

Whether it’s the same bits or not doesn’t matter, legally.

Maybe they commit infringement when they distribute the material, but you don’t, because you paid for it.

IANAL but my understanding is both parties commit copyright infringement, whether or not you already paid for another copy, because copyright law has no exception written in for an act that would otherwise be infringing except that you already have legally obtained a copy. If you have a source that says otherwise though, I would be very interested to see it.

James M James says:

Re: Location Limitations on Access to Media

I live in Japan, where Blu-ray players also record. The region code for Japan is “A” the same as the USA. We recorded “Victorious” (which is dubbed in Japanese but the original English track is available). I can’t read Japanese so using our local Blu-ray machine is difficult; on a trip home I bought a portable Blu-ray player with a home-language of English. Our BD of this show plays in our Japanese machine & in a friends Japanese Blu-ray machine but it WILL NOT play in my English language machine. Each show errors out with: “Tittle cannot be played back”.

Anonymous Coward says:

it makes me wonder why people go down the ‘legal route’ for anything, actually. and as for going ‘to the cloud’, you must be kiddin’ me! had the ebooks been physical copies, would someone have wrestled him to the ground, taken the books from him, accused him of having ‘illegal copies’ and whipped him into court? would he then have been fined for having those physical copies (and threatened with imprisonment, as the industries want in all cases!), told that even though he paid for them, they weren’t actually his, that he was only really renting them? i really would like to be with these people when they go to a shop, buy something, then get told that they haven’t really bought the item, they just rented it and it could be taken from them at any time. i wonder what would be said?? a few choice expletives, at a rough guess!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I go the legal route; that is right up until I strip the drm off the things I bought and when it comes to ebooks, that’s primarily because I do not give the sellers or publishers the right to take away from me those things I bought.
The law may or may not acknowledge my right to protect my things, but if it doesn’t, then the law is wrong, not me.

Mark Gisleson (profile) says:


A friend recently published a book on Amazon. I bought a copy and then found out I could not read it on my Kindle due to DRM protection.

The problem was that I broke my Kindle and bought a used replacement but did not register it with Amazon. That’s what DRM is now about: you cannot read DRM content on an unregistered device.

Why does that not scare the hell out of civil libertarians.

Anonymous Coward says:


If you look at the settings menu on your unregistered Kindle you’ll find you can’t change the time on it until it’s registered. (there are some other menu items that don’t appear until you register, can’t remember them off hand).
I got given one and as I didn’t have WiFi in the house I couldn’t register it to change the time – it was almost useless.

Nate (user link) says:


This post is missing half of the story. The ebooks that were lost weren’t paid ebooks.

They were actually PD titles from Google Books, and the problem was very likely caused by Google Books, not Google Play Books. The Google Books project has a long history of technical snafus, and this latest cockup is only a couple degrees more incompetent than past incidents.

According to my other source (an int’l traveler) paid ebooks from Google Play Books are probably safe from this bug.


crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It wouldn’t matter. You would have to be a lawyer in whatever duresdiction applies to be able to understand the legal implications of what you are supposedly agreeing to in those updates anyway. They all say the same thing: “you agree to let us do anything we want”. You have to go to the books to see what that actually means, what they really are allowed to do and what they are just trying to fool you into thinking they are allowed.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Nevermind adding "undownloading"

The term already exists, it’s called ‘Bait and switch’.

‘Thank you for your purchase, now that you’ve handed over your money, be aware that we retain the right to revoke your license at any time, for pretty much any reason we feel like, and take away your access to our content.’

‘I thought I was buying the song/book/movie in question. I mean, through the entire purchase process it has ‘buy’ and ‘sale’ all over the place, no mention of a license anywhere.’

‘Oh no, you were only paying for a license to access our material, as it clearly states in page 12, subsection 3.4, clause ‘Because screw you’ of the site ToS, that we helpfully direct you to at no point ever.’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Nevermind adding "undownloading"

Gamble is the word you are looking for, as with DRM on a closed platform who knows when what you paid for will go away. You pay your money and hope the supplier does not make your content disappear, and the device will last at least until you have read, viewed or played the content at least once.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Nevermind adding "undownloading"

Agreed, and it would certainly be interesting to see how forcing them to replace ‘Buy’ and ‘Purchase’ with ‘License’ when people are paying would affect their willingness to pay.

If people knew upfront that their ‘purchase’ came with a ton of strings attached, I imagine it would make a good many people rather more hesitant about paying, or at least make them give a good look at other, less restrictive alternatives.

Rekrul says:

There’s DRM that means you can’t make backups; there’s the country-specific usage that tries to impose physical geography on your digital ebooks; and there’s the update that spies on you and your system before deciding unilaterally to take away functionality by “undownloading” your ebooks.

None of which will slow the virtual stampede to give up desktop and laptop computers which you control in favor of tablets which are usually controlled by the company who sold it to you.

Jeff in Calgary says:

duel download

Just saying… when I pay for a book (eBook, or hard copy), I will then go to a torrent site, and download the book again so that I can read it easyly on my perfered book reader app (Currently Aldiko). I refuse to be caged by the publishers rediculous attempt at controlling the meathod of my consumption.

Is it a fair analogy to say it is like a Keg demanding that you use chopsticks to eat your stake. “No, you can’t use that fork, it violates the Digital Millenium act.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So is O'Donnell against copyright?

From: Jim O’Donnell
Date: Sun, 18 Aug 2013 20:58:07 +0800

Allow me to add three details to my story, which has gotten picked up
on various blogs, eliciting comments three orders of magnitude more
vapid than anything EVER posted on liblicense!

1. The books were not ones I had bought: they were 19th century
editions of classics scanned by the Google Books project. The ones I
need for my teaching are the two volumes of an 1884 edition of the
Latin text of Augustine’s City of God. (I covered myself by finding a
non-Google scan of the same volumes on archive.org.)

2. I have since discovered by framming around that about half a dozen
of the 40 or so titles are in fact downloadable now, but with no
reasonable pattern at all. Of a three volume set of Middlemarch, it’s
letting me have volume 2. Isaac Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature
is just fine and so is Moby-Dick, but not Varieties of Religious
Experience or J.N. Madvig’s Adversaria Critica (in three volumes).

3. The way it caught me was that my iPad signaled that Google Play
wanted to update itself, so I clicked to allow it to do so — people
keep forgetting to praise the all-wise Steve Jobs for the way we get
to spend zen meditative time with our iPads waiting for the same app
to keep updating itself over and over and over again. It was in doing
the update that it figured out where I was and zapped the books. If I
had not done the update, I’m pretty sure I would have escaped ok —
pretty sure, because I’ve taken them to other non-Google-Play
countries before.

davnel (profile) says:

Contract Law?

Maybe I’m just na?ve (probably), but I don’t understand something. A purchase is a legal contract between the seller, who provides the item or service, and a buyer, who provides some value in return, usually money. Once that contract is executed, the seller has no further control of the item purchased; it belongs to the buyer. If the seller renegs on the contract and takes back the item, there should be compensation (plus penalties, maybe?) to the buyer for the item sold being taken back. Where have I gone wrong? How does the seller retain control? Do the words “digital” or “file” change all of the rules? Do contracts no longer mean anything?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Contract Law?

The problem comes about when you have sellers who see ‘digital’ and suddenly have dreams of getting the best of both worlds, where it’s considered a sale when you price an item, when you advertise it, and especially when it comes to paying the writer/musician/filmmakers, but a license when it comes to what rights the ‘purchaser’ actually has.

Anonymous Coward says:


No-one bought anything, there was no DRM.

When you read Techdirt stories, do yourself a favor and don’t treat the article that Mike and his Cronies gives you as gospel, read the links that provide you and I guarantee that if that link isn’t pointing back to tech dirt then follow it to the true story, which is always more nuanced than Techdirt would lead you to believe.

(I’m also highly suspect at the moment that they’re being paid by Twitter to produce ‘news’ based an tweets)

Anonymous Coward says:

Many of you seem to assume that the transaction is a purchase of some sort of good where legal ownership is transferring. I agree that eBook “sellers” make it sound like you are “buying a book” when you are purchasing, but I’m certain that their terms of service make it very clear that you are doing nothing of the sort. At best, you are purchasing a limited license to use the book with a slew of restrictions.

I share many of the same reservations that others have expressed regarding the potential (and already documented) abuses that will occur when knowledge is fully digitized and controlled by the few. At the same time, pretending that we didn’t know what we were signing up for when we started consuming digital content seems a little naive.

Greevar (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Since we can access such content in other ways, we have every right to complain. EULA’s and TOS tomes are no excuse to screw every paying customer over with legal semantics and abusive business practices. If they don’t want to reward people for paying, then people will get it without paying. The question is, “Do they want that money or not?”

Stephan Kinsella (user link) says:

This is all an artifact of copyright

There is a lot of confusion about this issue. First: a physical book is literally sold to the buyer, not licensed. He owns the physical book, though the copyrihgt is retained. Thus he can re-sell the book or use it as he sees fit (the first sale doctrine in copyright ensures this), but he cannot make copies of the content.

But when you “buy” software or an ebook, you are simply downloading content, and that is typically done by a “license” which means you never “own” the content, just as you do not own it even when you buy a physical book. Without copyright law imposing these artificial distinctions, such limitations would probably be unheard of; by pure contract alone, it’s unlikely sellers of content could persuade buyers to contractually limit how they use the information. This is all an artifiact of IP law.

John85851 (profile) says:

I don't see the scandal here either.

Why in the world would anyone click the “update app” button while in another country? How are you 100% positive you won’t get the local version for that country? “Let’s see, the IP address is in Singapore, the cell carrier/ wi-fi signal is through a Singapore company, okay then, download the apps and restrictions for use in Singapore.”

I think a better title for this article would be “Man updates software while in Asia; loses all books, but gains Chinese apps”.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Not quite

There’s the country-specific usage that tries to impose physical geography on your digital ebooks.
While it’s true that I can’t purchase physical books in the UK at US prices, I can buy books at US prices in the US, then bring them back to the UK to read them, something that seems to be impossible with ebooks unless you’re willing to commit a crime by stripping the malware that enforces this stupidity.

DMCA correction says:

People missunderstanding DMCA

What I speak of is in direct relations to the comments made by other posters. The DMCA is relevant to this conversation in that, it is the backbone enforcement of DRM used by the App in which downloaded the books.

Want to pop in and correct a misconception Of the DMCA.

DMCA only prevents the creation and distribution of technologies that circumvent protections.

It does not say, it is illegal for a end user to “USE” say DVDdecrypt. “Use” of DVDdecrypt to make a backup copy is protected under “fair use” portion Of the copyright act. especially for archiving purposes so we don’t permanently loose the knowledge of the copy protected material.

The reason, no one that I know of, has been sued for using dvddecrypt, is I believe industry is afraid it would loose in court. If it did it could undo the whole DMCA.

DMCA was created as a workaround for removing the end user rights of copyrighted materials. The things found in DMCA was rejected from the group overseeing the updating of the copyright laws, who stated, the request took too many of the end user rights away and removed the rights of first sale and the right of ownership that is garrenteed for any other kind of purchase like books or cars..

One thing that bugs me that I read in another post is the material that was undownloaded was material that belonged to the “public domain” by undownloading the books was removing access to public domain information.

I don’t think it is right for a company to have the right to “bait and switch” by calling it an “update” rather than “this is a security check to see if you are in violation of TOS” to me updates are not updates when involving removing content or enforcing “tos” especially without any warning and ability to cancel that update. This is in fact a “police action by google”

My question is, when did a company get so much power as to restrict access to “public domain” material. Isn’t this how tyranny starts?

nasch (profile) says:

Re: People missunderstanding DMCA

It does not say, it is illegal for a end user to “USE” say DVDdecrypt.

Actually, that is exactly what it says:

“No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title…

(3) As used in this subsection? (A) to “circumvent a technological measure” means to descramble a scrambled work, to decrypt an encrypted work, or otherwise to avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate, or impair a technological measure, without the authority of the copyright owner; and (B) a technological measure “effectively controls access to a work” if the measure, in the ordinary course of its operation, requires the application of information, or a process or a treatment, with the authority of the copyright owner, to gain access to the work.”

Christine (profile) says:

My solution
1. get Nook Simple; none of that fancy HD stuff; I just want a nook that reads books, not checks email, plays games, etc.
2. As with any device, turn off wifi and auto updates. don’t ever update.
3. Lurk moar. Pirate. You can get almost ANY book for free. and yes, it is yours. Keep copies on a flash drive and on your PC.
4. Illegitimi non carborundum

I’m not rich. I use the library religiously, but not every book is available there.

Saffer says:

Deja Vu: Google setting us up for an Amazon Swindle via the Play Store :(

New PlayStore TOS:
… Google may remove from your Device or cease providing you with access to certain Products that you have purchased… Et.al.


Just did a websearch (right now I’m too pissed off to use the verb “google” ) on RMS’ comments on the Swindle and found your blog entry: opendotdotdot.blogspot.com/2009/04/rms-on-amazons-swindle.html?m=1

I’m in South Africa and I’m surprised at this DRM restriction, it removes our rights to fair dealing and established law regarding the purchase and use of goods and services, much in the same way as Amazon does.

SA consumers take a critical view of any DRM, particularly from the time onwards of nonsensical Region Control restrictions when DVD became popular. Nobody ever buys a region locked DVD player here.

I think Google should respect the fact that our devices are ours to use as we wish, this issue is not about security or propagation of malicious code into the cyber ecosystem, but a backdoored attempt to strip away the users rights.

Shame on you, Google! And you supposedly do no evil?

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