Breaking the DRM Spell

Guess what topic I”m tackling for my final presentation for this summer’s law class?  That’s right, DRM and e-books!  I also have writer’s group tonight and wanted to bring some new material.  So, here’s an allegory/parody of how DRM works sociologically as demonstrated by DRM principles applied to a physical book through magic.


It was Sunday afternoon.  James had saved his pocket money from the store for three whole weeks, and today he was going to Carl & Smith’s to buy a book.  He’d read nearly all of Father’s books at home, and now wanted one all his own.

He found a very large book about how to sail ships on the high seas.  It had all sorts of graphs and figures, and talked about currents and winds, instruments, engines, and navigation tools.  It was perfect!  James had always dreamed of being a sailor like his Uncle Daron, and knew he needed to start his nautical education if he had a chance of getting captain before he was thirty.

Mr. Smith himself wrapped the book and took James’ coin.  James couldn’t help but tell him how excited he was to learn about sailing.  Mr. Smith smiled (it wasn’t very pretty).

“Wonderful!” said Mr. Smith.  “This is certainly the book for you.  A very wise purchase, young man.  You’ll be mastering the seas in no time!”

‘Thank you!” said James.  He took the book and turned towards the door.

“Ah, wait a moment,” said Mr. Smith.  “Do you know the rules?”

“Er, which rules?” asked James.  There were lots of rules about all kinds of things, but he didn’t know which ones Mr. Smith could mean.

“The book rules,” the old man replied.  “Well then.  My books are very special, you see.  I can’t have people just showing them around to anyone they wish or copying things out of them.  So, all my books are magical!”

James looked down at the package in his hands.  “Magic?”

“Oh, yes!  Now you must choose very carefully.  They can only be opened inside, and only in one place.”

James frowned.  “One place?”

“That’s right.  The first place you open it in.  Well, now you know!  Off you go.  Enjoy the book!  You got quite a bargain there.”

Mr. Smith turned to the next customer.


James took the trolley home.  He really wanted to start reading the book, but he wasn’t sure if the trolley counted as a “place” since it moved.  If it did, he certainly didn’t want to be limited to reading on the trolley!  At home he went to his room, sat on the bed and opened the wrappings.

Mr. Smith was right; it was a great book!


The next day, James told his friend Tomas at school all about the book.  He’d already made it through three chapters!  Tomas was very impressed, and asked if he could see the book since he also wanted to be a sailor.  Perhaps, James could bring it to class the next day?

“Well, it’s a very special book,” said James.

“I know.  It sounds amazing,” Tomas replied.

“No, I mean, it’s magic.  I can’t take it out of the house.”

“Oh,” said Tomas.  “Well, could I come over and see it?”

“Sure,” said James.


Tomas worked at the general store down the street and wouldn’t be able to come over until Friday.  That night James found a particularly fascinating section on navigating maelstroms that he knew Tomas would appreciate.  Tomorrow was only Tuesday though…  James took out a piece of paper and a pencil.


The next day, he proudly handed Tomas a handful of paper.  “I found the best chapter,” he said, “and I couldn’t wait to show you, so I took some notes and traced the graphs.”

“Wow, thanks!” said Tomas.  He unfolded the sheets.  He frowned at the first one and flipped to the next page.  Then through all of them.  “What is this?”  he asked.

“What?” said James, confused.  “It’s all about navigating a maelstrom, obviously.”

“’Obviously?’” parroted Tomas.  “What language did you write this in?”

“What do you mean?”  James grabbed back the pages.  Sure enough, all his notes had turned into squiggles, like a child inventing his own orthography.  The graph he had copied was smeared into a blurry mess.  It didn’t even look like a graph.  “Oh no.  It wasn’t like this before.  It must be the magic on the book.”

Tomas was not impressed.


By Wednesday evening James had read nearly half the book, and couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was over dinner.  Uncle Daron was over, and asked to see the book.

“Sure!” said James.  He had been wanting Uncle Daron’s opinion on the proper way to tell if an approaching cloud front was a hurricane or a typhoon.

After dinner he brought the book into the study, where Father and Uncle Daron were discussing trade over glasses of scotch.

“Aha!” said Uncle Daron.  He took the book.  “Let’s see what we have.”  He examined the title, authorship, and binding and pronounced all to worthy specimens.  Then he tried to open the book.  It wouldn’t budge.  “Hm.  It’s stuck.”

“What do you mean?” asked Father.

“Well, George, it won’t open.  James, does it have a key of some kind?  Wait, no, there’s no lock…”

“Uh oh,” said James.  The two men looked at him.  He took the book back, waved for them to follow and walked into his room.  Perhaps when Mr. Smith said “place” he had really  mean “room?”  After they were both inside he shut the door.  They were both watching him very curiously.

He opened the cover—phew!—and handed it back to Uncle Daron.  Daron flipped several pages, his curiosity turning to frustration.  “There’s nothing here.”  He held it out to show Father.  “See, it’s blank.”

“What?’ cried James.  “No, it’s not.  It’s full of great stuff.”  He grabbed it back.

He didn’t hear Father scolding him about grabbing it so rudely.  He was flipping the pages.  It was all there!   “See!” he said, holding it up for them.  “It’s all there. “

They shook their heads.  “Are you alright, James?” asked Father.  “Those pages are blank.”

“What are you talking about?  Here I’ll read it.”  He sat down with the book on his lap and read them a paragraph about testing the depth of a canal before attempting to sail it.  Halfway through Father interrupted.

“James!  What are you saying?  Are you sure you’re alright?  What tongue is that?”

James looked up to see them both staring at him with concern.  Father looked about ready to call for the physician!  He was staring at James with wide eyes.

“I….  It’s… it’s in English.  I was speaking, English”

Uncle Daron stepped over and took the book.  He examined the cover, the title, and the presumably blank pages inside.

“James, can you tell me what this page says,” he held out the book to an open page.  “Don’t read it, just summarize, in your own words.”

James was getting very confused.  “Um…  it’s…” he scanned the page, trying to orient himself.  He’d read it just last night.  It had been really interesting.  At the moment, though, he was having trouble forming words.  “It’s about .. I… uh… sails, and the wind, and… what’s the word?  Um.  Tacking!  Yes.  Tacking across the wind.”

Uncle Daron nodded for him to continue.  “Well, right here,”  he tapped the page, “is a map of a lagoon, and a path of where to go if wind is coming from the southwest.   And this paragraph here talks about what kind of sails to use. And over here is a rigging diagram of how to position them.”

Uncle Daron snapped the book shut.  “Where did you get this book, James?”

“From Mr. Smith, at Carl & Smith’s up in the Elm quarter.“

“Did he tell you anything about this book?”

James told him what Mr. Smith had said about the book being magic.  Uncle Daron put a hand on James’ shoulder.

“Young man, you have been conned.  Mr. Smith is so paranoid about people stealing his books he has made them impossible to read.  Tomorrow, I’m going to take you to another book shop, down by the docks.  My friend Jenkins has just the thing.”


James raced down to the Wharf District as soon as the final bell rang.  He had the book in his bag.  The Wharf District was one of his favorite places, but today it seemed extra special.

Uncle Daron met him on the wharf beside his own ship, the White Runner, and led him down the street to a small shop.  The sign just said “Book Trader.”

A bright eyed young man leapt out of a chair by the window when they walked in.  He set aside the book in his hand and greeted Uncle Daron warmly.

“Daron, you old sea dog!  Found any more rare editions for me?”

“I’m afraid not.  But I have a new customer for you,” said Daron.

The man looked at james.  “Indeed?  Well, the pleasure is all mine.  I am Jenkins.”  He held out his hand to James.

James took it, a bit nervous.  “I’m James.”

“So you are.  You’re uncle never shuts up about your dreams of following in his footsteps.  You’ve got him all puffed up like a peacock.”  Uncle Daron coughed, and Jenkins laughed.   Adults are so weird, James thought.   “So what can I do for you?” Jenkins asked.

“Well,“ began Uncle Daron.  “James bought this book from old Harry Smith.”

James handed the book to Jenkins.

“Ah, I see,” said Jenkins.  “So Harry is still up to his old tricks.  Well, that is easily solved.”

“Really?” asked James, hopefully.

“Oh yes!” said Jenkins.  He unwrapped the book and placed it on the counter.  “Old Harry uses an antiquated spell to lock his books so that they are hardly even readable.  But, perhaps even more sadly, the spell is easily broken.”

“Are you a magician?” asked James.

“Hardly!  Anyone can break the spell, even you.  Observe.” Jenkins threw open the window and James saw a window box full of weeds.  Jenkins plucked two leaves from them and held them up.  “Two dandelion leaves,” he said, as if it was terribly clever.  Then the pinched the edges of the cover with one of the leaves and with a slight tug, popped it open.  He placed one of the leaves inside the front cover, then repeated the process with the back cover.

He pulled a vial of white powder from behind the counter.  “One tablespoon of dry soda.”  He took James’ hand and emptied a thimbleful of the soda into it..  “Now, I’ll flip the pages, and you blow the soda between them.  Ready?  Go!”  He lifted the mass of pages a few inches from the cover and thumbed the lot of them back down while James blew a cloud of soda dust into them.

“And finally,” he pulled out a flour sack from behind the counter.  “A few handfuls of sawdust to help it all stick.”  He showed James the mixture in the bag.  “Go ahead, but the book in.”  James placed the book in the dust.  Jenkins tied of the sack and handed it to James.  “Now shake it!”

James shook the bag, flipping it over a few times to keep things even.

“Excellent!” said Jenkins, taking back the bag.  “Now, we just brush it off – don’t open it yet though!   And now you hold it—since it’s your book—and say aloud ‘be open,’ with confidence!”

Jenkins stepped back.  James looked up at Uncle Daron, who nodded.  It seemed rather ridiculous, that such an annoying spell could be broken with dandelions, soda water, and sawdust.  But there was nothing else for it.

“Be Open!” he said loudly.  There was a tiny jolt and a soft hiss.  He cradled the book and pried at the front cover.

It opened!  The dandelion leaf had disappeared, but all the writing had come back.  And it was even in English.

“Thank you!” he said, smiling up at Jenkins.

“Oh, it’s my pleasure!  Books are meant to be read and stories are made to be told.  And now that you know, never let old spells like that stop you.”

“If it’s so easy to break the spell, why would Mr. Smith even cast it in the first place?” asked James.

“Beats me,” said Jenkins.


Creative Commons License
Breaking the DRM Spell by Elizabeth L Schorr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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