The concept of buying a DRM-protected ebook is nebulous. As I discussed in a November 2022 article, storefronts that rely on protections such as Amazon DRM or Adobe Digital Editions often severely restrict what one can do with a purchased book. There is always the possibility that a purchased book may be removed from a library entirely. Mr. Matthew Sholtz touched on another issue involving DRM-protected ebooks in a January 20, 2023 article titled Amazon ran Comixology straight into the ground, and now it’s laying off staff. What happens when you purchased an ebook in one format only to see it transmogrify into a worse format after the fact?

Comixology was once an independent digital storefront for comic books and manga that maintained its own reading app. Mr. Sholtz explains that Amazon purchased Comixology in 2013. In 2022, Amazon deprecated the Comixology app entirely, supplanting it with Kindle’s native user interface and in so doing, in the view of Mr. Sholtz and others, provided a worse experience.

While Mr. Sholtz levels many complaints about Amazon’s handling of the Comixology brand, I will focus on one complaint dealing specifically with the DRM-related issues that I have written about here at The New Leaf Journal.

Mr. Sholtz explained what drew him to Comixology for his manga purchases in the first place:

I built up a large collection of manga on Comixology over the last ten years simply because it was the only store selling HD copies of the books I wanted to read.

Matthew Sholtz (emphasis added)

This is an important point. According to Mr. Sholtz, what distinguished Comixology from other manga ebook retailers was the fact that it sold HD copies of its books. This feature caused Mr. Sholtz to spend money with Comixology that he might otherwise have spent elsewhere. How are those books doing now?

As it stands, many of the books are not HD anymore; thus I no longer have access to things I purchased, but lesser copies that look awful on high-end tablets.

Matthew Sholtz (emphasis added)

Mr. Sholtz bought many manga comics from Comixology, most likely through Amazon. He specifically bought the manga because he could view it in HD on his HD displays. At some point, the HD manga that he purchased turned into non-HD manga, all without any action on his part.

Yikes. He explained:

Amazon basically replaced many of the comics in my collection with low-res books I specifically went out of my way to avoid..

Matthew Sholtz

I would go further than saying that Amazon basically replaced what Mr. Sholtz purchased with something worse. It absolutely actually replaced his purchases with something demonstrably worse.

Mr. Sholtz summarized his thoughts on this particular affront to his expensive digital book collection:

[T]his is the perfect example of why the digital libraries we’ve all built up over the last decade across a host of services are incredibly anti-consumer, as the terms and quality can change at any point, and the only ones left holding the bag are us, the consumers who were dumb enough to trust multinational corporations like Amazon.

Matthew Sholtz

In most of my DRM articles, I have focused on the fact that digital purchases can be taken away and that one’s ability to use them is more limited than one’s ability to use something that he or she “bought” as the term was understood in the pre-digital era (see example). Mr. Sholtz’s unfortunate story highlights the danger that a digital purchase may be transformed, sometimes (if not often) for the worse. In his case, he still technically has the manga that he purchased, but they are no longer the high quality versions that he actually purchased for the price he chose to pay. By his account, had his current versions of the manga been what was on offer from Amazon/Comixology, he might not have purchased them at all.

Screenshot of the first volume of Teasing Master Takagi-san in Amazon's online bookstore.
Although I named the third season of Teasing Master Takagi-san as my 2022 anime series of the year, I have never read its underlying manga. Lacking a good idea of an image for this article, I decided to look it up on Amazon. I found no warning from Amazon that the quality of your digital “purchase” may degrade over time, so I can understand Mr. Sholtz’s concern. Note that I added a slight blur to the image, you will see that Amazon’s store page at least looks quite shiny.

Beyond the questionable ethics of Amazon replacing high quality media with lower quality versions of the same media is the problem that the customer is often left with little or no choice. For example, it is not as if many of the big manga or comic distributors that sell Amazon or Adobe DRM-protected ebooks are offering DRM-free options (there are some cases where there is an option, but many where there are not). This leaves people who want to purchase the manga or comic legitimately with only one option – to “buy” a platform-dependent DRM-protected version and hope that nothing unfortunate happens to it down the line or opt for a physical version of the media if it exists.

While I have some manga from Amazon (note: my last such purchase was probably about six or seven years ago), I must confess that I never understood the whole Comixology thing. I distinctly remember seeing the branding, but I did not know what it was or how it could be distinguished from Amazon, and to the best of my knowledge, I always used the native reading app on my Kindle Fire HDX 7. However, what I do remember is that my purchases were represented as purchases, granting the obvious caveat that said purchases were tied to Amazon’s ecosystem. Nowhere do I recall seeing warnings that my purchase may be downgraded to an inferior version after some amount of time passed.

As I have opined in prior articles, if we cannot reform the terrible anti-ownership ethos of big tech digital media, we can at least ask for honesty. If there is a realistic probability that Amazon or any other retailer will downgrade a product after the fact – and especially if this is not something that should be obvious (e.g., an online game’s servers will inevitably be shut down eventually) – the retailer should explain the risk and clarify what purchase from its store means in reality. While still sub-optimal, that would be far preferable to omission of even the suggestion that Amazon retained in perpetuity the right to pull the rug from unsuspecting consumers who had only given Amazon their money because Amazon was selling higher quality digital versions of certain manga and comics than were other retailers.