Audible, can you hear me?

Audible sounds like a fantastic service: you pay a subscription fee and are able to download audiobooks. Since most audio books are longer than can fit on a standard CD, getting the book as a download is a lot less cumbersome than buying a multi-disc set, and theoretically would be more convenient to listen to since you can put it on your portable media player.

At least, that’s what I thought when I first signed up for it. Unfortunately, Audible uses copy protection (DRM) on the files they sell, and they weren’t compatible with my device, which at the time was a very popular model in the Sansa line. Their only workaround was burning the books to CD, but since I’d already moved on from that format, I wasn’t interested. I ended up going to a torrent-based piracy site to get an unprotected copy of the book I bought so I could use it on my player, and I canceled my Audible subscription.


I’ve long since ditched my Sansa for an iPod, and as a big fan of Leo Laporte’s podcasting network, I decided to give Audible another chance; they’re his sponsor, and I felt like I should support his network by using their referral link. I also thought that as an iPod owner, the DRM wouldn’t even be noticeable. I download the file and use it on a compatible device; it just works, right?

Then the news hit that Wal-Mart was shutting off their DRM servers, which would soon render the copy-protected songs they’d sold unplayable. They sent an e-mail to their customers, telling them that the songs they thought they owned would soon stop working unless they burned them to a CD. Now, Wal-Mart isn’t some fly-by-night Web 2.0 company. They certainly have enough money to keep some servers online. This got me thinking: Why should I keep paying a subscription for files that I don’t technically own? I have to rely on Audible not only to stay viable as a company, but either never to change their business model or to keep supporting their old customers if (and when) their model does change. If Wal-Mart doesn’t think it’s necessary, why would Audible? As a consumer, I don’t think I should have to buy hundreds of blank CDs just to ensure I can keep listening to my audiobook collection, and I don’t want to go through the hassle of breaking the copy-protection with third-party software — an act that, by the way, is technically illegal under a law called the DMCA, which has no exception for fair use like making back-up copies of your media.

I realized I couldn’t live with the DRM, even though I do like the service. I just don’t want to pay for things when I don’t even have the illusion of ownership. I decided to cancel my account, so I logged in to the website. Unfortunately, I found out that I’d already used the one cancellation they allow you. Yes, you read that right. As an customer, you only get to cancel their service once by logging in. Any time after that, you have to call them. On the phone. An Internet-based company. The phone.

I still haven’t done it. I’m rarely at home during “normal business hours,” so it’s especially onerous to have to call to do something simple like cancel a recurring fee. Initially, my only thought was that I would cancel the service until they ditched the DRM. Since Audible was bought by last January, and since Amazon sells DRM-free MP3s, it’s not a big leap to think they might start using the same model. But now I just want to cancel, and I doubt I’ll ever resubscribe. I don’t want to have to call someone perform simple account-management tasks that should be a standard part of their website’s toolset.

14 thoughts on “Audible, can you hear me?

  1. It is a fine revelation, but to be fair, those that have screwed up with DRM in the past are trying to make amends for it. Yahoo Music gave out coupons to redownload songs at Rhapsody, MSN music is keeping their DRM servers up for three more years, and for now the Walmart servers are still up (not to mention they switched to DRM free tracks already, so hopefully Audible will do the same.

  2. I wonder if there are any statistics on sales before and after DRM for those services that have stopped using it… I’d be curious to see if it has had any effect at all.

  3. What the hell is a DRM server? – he said without realising this very question made evident his long-running rampant piracy.

  4. Good question pimento. Months ago I read an article on Arstechnica claiming that the Amazon MP3 store has been growing, but no at the expense of iTunes. They also had some differences in demographics. Rather than each of them having to fight for ground, they’re simply accommodating different parts of the market.

    Though they did say that iTunes owes a lot of its success to the teen market, which makes your realize that it is the simplicity and convenience of getting the music onto their ipods that counts, not DRM in any way.

  5. It really feels like there ought to be a law that if any company is selling DRM-protected content, if they shut down the DRM servers, they need to release some sort of “unlock” key.

  6. Er, what’s wrong with getting them from iTunes? Although, I’m not really sure as to the quality of their selection, as I find audiobooks to be a big waste of time.

  7. The audiobooks sold on iTunes are from Audible and are DRM protected. :P

    I swear I wrote this before I saw that XKCD comic. Literally an hour after I submitted I saw that and I was like “oh man”. I guess great minds think alike. (Except I’m nowhere near as smart as Randall XKCD).

  8. i steal ’cause i’m not
    afraid of a warrant
    This is why, this is why, this is why i torrent.

  9. Man, that’s awful. Seriously, it’s terrifying, and I wish I could fast forward to ten years when digital distribution is past its growing pains stage.

  10. Dirty little secret: DRM is not that hard to break, once someone’s already broken the copy protection (in this case, they have). I just do a Google search to find out how to break the DRM on my files when I need to*. Of course, it’s illegal if you live in the US, but you did pay for it and I suspect that piracy is the greater crime if you’re forced to break the law so you can listen to your stuff.

    * In one case, it turned out I already had all the programs I needed to circumvent the DRM on the second Gorillaz album, purely by accident. They apparently assumed no-one would ever look at the file structure of the CD.

  11. So, if you have an MP3 from Wal-Mart on your iPod, and they shut down their DRM server, how does that negate the MP3 therein

    Because on removal from said MP3 player you would no longer be able to access on you pc of choice. Hope you have enough memory :)

  12. If you’ve ever gone to one of those free credit report sites they do the same “phone in to cancel” thing. When you do call they constantly nag at you to keep the service over the overly drawn out cancellation process. Lame!

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