My Beef with Audible

I’m not proud or naïve enough to think that many people reading my blog are strangers. Relatively few of the people I actually see on a regular basis have the desire to sift through my ramblings on philosophy and politics. In fact, as of this writing, this blog has 507 views all-time (the first post was in July of 2010). It’s an underwhelming statistic.

Still, I like to think of myself as a good writer. As someone recently pointed out, however, it’s difficult to prove that when I don’t actually write. Consequently, I’ve decided to dedicate myself to one post a day. Don’t expect greatness every day, but I’ll try to leave out the parts that people will skip.

*          *          *          *

I’m addicted to audiobooks. It began in high school when Mom bought a 7-disk audio rendition of Homer’s Odyssey. I used to fall asleep at night listening to Odysseus’s escape from the Cyclops. Then it was all seven books in the Harry Potter series—read by the amazing Jim Dale. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I dislike the movies is because, next to Mr. Dale’s audio rendition, the actors seem hollow and fake.

Suffice it to say that every time Audible.com offered a free audiobook for joining, I’d create an account, download a new book, and then promptly cancel my membership. After doing this several times, my conscience began to get the better of me. Audiobooks take the most mundane parts of my day and make them extraordinary. With a decent audiobook, the seven-hour drive from college back home (through perhaps the most boring scenery in the world—northern Utah and southern Idaho) was almost exciting. Finally, I caved in and signed up for a regular Audible.com membership. I get a book a month (which works out almost perfectly) for less than I spend on subway rides in three days.

This week I realized that my brother and I had been downloading books from the same series. I have my own Audible account, and he’s been using Dad’s. Naturally, instead of downloading the same book twice, we figured we should just download different series and share.

Enter Audible.com technical idiocy. Audible downloads are not .mp3 files. Instead, they’re special .aa files that incorporate DRM (Digital Rights Management) protection, which prevents users from burning the files to CD more than once, using the files on computers without the proper Audible account authorization, and using them on non-standard mp3 players. The files have a memory, and you’re only authorized to use them on up to 4 computers. Unfortunately, my family has more than 4 computers, which means that, per Audible’s rules, it’s impossible for all of us to listen to the same audiobook unless we upload the data onto our iPods from the same four computers.

After looking into the problem, I realized that our problems were minute compared to many other Audible users. If, for example you don’t use iTunes (not everyone does) as your media player, you have to install Audible’s download manager to download, organize, and play your files. If you’re using a non-Apple mp3 player (like a Zune, for instance), then you’re limited to 3 devices (whereas, if you have iPods, you can transfer your audiobooks onto as many as you like).

Audible uses DRM-protected files in weird formats in an attempt to prevent copyright infringement. The irony is that, despite the significant inconvenience to paying customers, removing DRM protection from files in these formats is not only possible and not-so-difficult, it’s legal. It’s just time consuming. The easiest way is to burn the files to a CD (which Audible allows you to do once) and then just rip them right back onto your computer in .mp3 format. Thereafter, you’ve got DRM-free .mp3 files to share with whomever you please. There are even numerous programs online that utilize a CD-RW to automate the process, allowing you to hit the button, leave the room, and come back to find it done for you.

In effect, DRM protection on Audible’s files does absolutely nothing to prevent copyright infringement. Anyone willing to take enough time to create a torrent and share their audiobooks with the world can certainly take a few moments to convert them to .mp3.

I wrote an email to Audible to this effect. It’s attached below—along with their response and my rebuttal.

Enjoy!

My Original Email Complaint:

Dear Sir or Ma’am:

I’m writing to complain about Audible’s continued use of ridiculous DRM-protected .aa files. First, such files create significant inconvenience for your members (particularly for those with bigger families, multiple computers/devices, non-itunes media players, and non-standard .mp3 players). Second, DRM-protected files don’t ensure copyright protection; converting such files to .mp3 is not only easy, it’s legal, and a myriad of programs exist for that explicit purpose.

In short, you’re inconveniencing paying customers in an ineffective attempt to stem the tide of copyright violators who aren’t even paying Audible members to begin with.

Their Response:

Hi Ryan,

Thank you for contacting Audible! I apologize about any inconvenience you may have encountered and will be happy to assist you.

I understand that you are writing in to complain about our use of DRM. DRM is a measure taken by Audible that is required to protect both the intellectual property rights of our content providers and authors.

Audible uses security technologies, including encryption, to protect purchased programs. DRM assures our customers that the digital media they are receiving from our site has not been pirated. Consumers can be confident that the digital media they receive from us has been acquired in a legitimate matter and is authentic material.

With Audible files, you can store playback positions and navigate between chapters and sections. It also allows our partners to provide additional features such as accelerated playback, extra bookmarks, etc.

Again, I apologize about the inconvenience that this has caused and if you have any further questions please feel free to reply back to this email and we will be happy to assist you.

Enjoy your day!

Sincerely,
Anthony R. – Customer Service

Audible Customer Support

My Rebuttal:

Hi Anthony,

A few points:

1. No reasonable Audible customer has ever been legitimately concerned that the files Audible provides are pirated. Audible maintains a near-monopoly on legal online audiobook downloads, and to suggest that its customers worry about whether what they’re downloading is pirated is asinine.

2. DRM does NOT protect the intellectual property rights of content providers or authors; it’s a simple enough (and legal) procedure to remove DRM protection from files by converting them to .mp3s using various software products that exist for that purpose (or by simply burning them to a CD and then ripping it right back onto a computer). It just wastes my time to do that so I can listen to my purchases how I want to.

3. DRM has nothing to do with my ability to store playback positions and navigate between chapters and sections or any of the other features you described. You could still have these features without DRM protection.

4. Audible has announced, on its own website, that it plans to provide DRM-free downloads, which indicates that it feels none of the reasons you gave me are weighty enough to incur such customer dissatisfaction.

(“Audible recently announced that it is working to provide an option of DRM-free spoken work audio titles on Audible.com for content owners and publishers who prefer this method. Currently we do not have an implementation date.”)

Your customers are not idiots, and they recognize B.S. answers when they see them. Please just get on with releasing DRM-free audiobooks before they begin searching for more convenient file types on The Pirate Bay.

Cheers,

Ryan Burningham

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5 comments

  1. “After doing this several times, my conscience began to get the better of me.”

    I must admit after receiving an obvious canned response from their customer service department, my moral compass would be spinning in the “Screw you guys, I’m pirating” direction. Yet you persist – sending a retort to their brainwashed, robotic CSR.

    I admire your dedication to a hopeless cause almost as much as I mock your commitment to bow to a draconian standard.

  2. I did the same thing with audiobooks growing up. I loved Jim Dale’s performance. Anyway, not having anyone to share my audiobooks with, I just download audible books onto my phone and listen as I go and have no problems with their service. You do have a good point with the problems of their policy though. I liked your rebuttal letter though. Too bad it was probably an automated response.

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