Chill out, DRM’s not the reason that guy lost his (public domain) Google ebooks

Google Play Books

There’s a story getting a bunch of attention on the internet this week about Jim O’Donnell, a Georgetown professor who went to Singapore and updated his Books on Google Play app there. The app then deleted many of the books O’Donnell had downloaded, and he wasn’t able to re-download them in Singapore.

O’Donnell originally attributed the problem on DRM: “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,” he wrote on a library listserv in a post entitled “DRM follies.”

At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow picked up the story under the headline “Cross a border, lose your ebooks,” writing that the episode “points out just how totally, irretrievably broken the idea of DRM and region-controls for ebooks is.” And the story is still getting play today.

Except…DRM had nothing to do with this episode, and in fact, O’Donnell hadn’t actually bought the books in question. They were all public-domain titles, which he had downloaded from Google for free. In fact, earlier this week, O’Donnell clarified what had happened in a comment at The Digital Reader:

“(1) The books were not bought books, they were Google Books scanned 19th century books, all of them *clearly* public domain; (2) I have since discovered that about 6 of the 40 are in fact downloadable, but there is *no* pattern — volume 2 of Middlemarch is downloadable, but not volumes 1 or 3 of the same issue. The error message is that they don’t have Google Play in my country. — One technical point: my iPad had signaled that the app had an update available and I did that; it was doing the update that called attention to my extraterritoriality and zapped all my books. If I hadn’t touched the update, I would have probably been just fine.”

In addition, Google reached out to Gizmodo to “explain that this is not normal or intended behavior for the Google Books app, but instead the result of a bug. Google Play stores will not allow additional purchases while in territories where they do not operate, but this active removal of content was apparently an isolated issue unrelated to normal Google Books DRM behavior.” Boing Boing hasn’t corrected its story.

It’s annoying that this happened, and it may offer evidence that Books on Google Play is a bit glitchy. But it’s not a story about copyright, and it’s not an example of DRM-addicted retailers taking away readers’ legally purchased ebooks.

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