Ask LH: How Do I Get Rid Of DRM On My Ebooks And Videos?

Dear Lifehacker, I just heard about the woman whose Kindle ebooks were wiped when her account was suspended, and it got me thinking: Do I really own anything that I’ve bought with DRM? It seems like I could lose it at any time, or lose the ability to view something just because I switched devices. How can I get rid of the DRM so I can keep my own backups?

Sincerely, Sick of DRM

Title photo by Austin Parrish Thomas.

Dear SoD,

It’s always a bit disheartening to hear about content getting changed or removed because of DRM. Combined with the news a few years ago that Amazon could wipe content it didn’t have the licence for, DRM is increasingly an issue with further reaching implications than simply keeping you from pirating content. Wiping content is one issue — but DRM also usually locks the media to your device or service — which means you often can’t transfer your library between different devices. With that in mind, let’s first take a quick look at what you’re actually buying when you buy DRM-tagged content before digging into how to remove DRM from videos and books.

What You’re Buying When You Buy Digital Content

Just as a quick primer here, we should note what exactly it is you’re purchasing when you buy digital content, and why this problem exists in the first place. When you purchase digital content, you’re typically just buying a licence to use it. You do not “own” the books or media you purchase in traditional terms. For example, here are Amazon’s Terms of Use (bolding ours):

Upon your download of Kindle Content and payment of any applicable fees (including applicable taxes), the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Kindle Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Supported Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.

Most Terms of Use at other digital stores follow Amazon here, and they all also have something similar to this little caveat:

In addition, you may not bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security features that protect the Kindle Content.

So, just so you know, removing DRM from ebooks and videos is typically against the Terms of Use. Most services like Amazon allow you to store your books or video purchases in the cloud so you can download them again later. But they’re always restricted to their apps, and that’s a bummer.

How to Remove DRM from Ebooks (and Back Up Your Library Permanently)

The easiest way to strip DRM from Kindle books and other content is with the free ebook software Calibre, DRM removal plugins, and a copy of the Kindle desktop software (PC/Mac). Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Download Calibre, the the plugins, and the Kindle Desktop software.
  2. Unzip the contents of the plugin directory.
  3. Open up Calibre and click on “Preferences”.
  4. Navigate to “Plugins” under the “Advanced” section.
  5. Click “Load Plugin from file” and select from the directory you just unzipped.
  6. Load up the Kindle app on your Mac or Windows computer and download all your books from Amazon.
  7. Navigate to either C:\Users\[your username]\Documents\My Kindle Content on Windows or [your username]\My Documents\My Kindle Content on Mac.
  8. Your books aren’t named in any meaningful way, so just drag all the *.azw files into Calibre.
  9. After a short wait (depending on the size of your library), Calibre will finish importing the books. Now you have a DRM-free backup of all your books on your computer.

It’s a little convoluted, but once you get the hang of it, Calibre is a solid way to backup all your purchased ebooks.

How to Remove DRM from Movies and TV Shows

Movies are slightly easier to remove DRM from than ebooks, but the process isn’t free. For this, we like Tunebite ($US25) on Windows, or Noteburner M4V Converter ($US50) on Mac. Both will cost you a little money, but removing DRM from video files downloaded from the likes of Amazon or iTunes is an incredibly simple process.

Alternately, you can record directly from your computer using a screen recording tool (any of these five will do). You will, of course, have to wait for the entire movie since it operates essentially like dubbing, but if you already use screen recording tools it’s a free option for backing up your movies.

The Case for Abandoning DRM Content Completely

While it is possible to strip away all the DRM from the content you already own, it’s even better to buy from sellers that don’t use DRM in the first place. That’s easier said than done, of course, as most major stores (iBooks, iTunes, Amazon) all use DRM for their content. Photo by Gavin Baker.

For books, crowdfunded efforts such as Story Bundle or Humble Ebook Bundle are great ways to get DRM-free books, but they’re not the same as a store. Occasionally, you can also grab books directly from a publisher like Tor that come DRM-free or grab older books from Project Gutenberg.

The same goes for videos. Much like books, you have to go directly to a performer to get a DRM-free video. For instance, comedians Louis CK, Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari both released their comedy shows free of DRM, but those types of instances are few and far between (occasionally smaller films, such as Indie Game: The Movie, will do it). However, if you really want to avoid DRM, it’s still easier to buy a physical disc and rip it yourself — whether it’s a DVD or Blu-ray disc. They still technically have DRM, but it’s the easiest to bypass.

The fact is, while piracy is certainly an issue, so is user experience. You want to pay money for something knowing you’ll be able to use it in the future regardless of what device you have in your hand, and DRM often makes that hard. Author Cory Doctorow describes this problem pretty bluntly as: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

Worse, when you’re locked into a certain store or hardware, you end up getting stuck on the upgrade treadmill because your content is locked to one type of device. Sure, Amazon’s Kindle app exists across platforms, but if you buy from somewhere else, you all of a sudden have no books. Same if you buy movies from iTunes and switch away from the Apple TV. And there’s always a (slight) chance any given service will stop providing support. Then you’re really left in the lurch.


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