Has Audible Quietly Dropped the DRM?

This is a Question To Which The Answer Might Be Yes, surprisingly, though I’ve not seen *any* mention of this anywhere, so can’t guarantee another explanation…

I’ve long resented the fact that Audible, the Amazon subsidiary, has a near-monopoly on the audiobook market. Not for my own sake — audiobooks aren’t my preferred medium by a long way — but for the sake of my wife, Holly, who’s legally blind and chooses audiobooks wherever possible. We both use GNU/Linux on our laptops, and there’s no Audible player for that, and Holly used to use a Blackberry, and there’s no app for that either. As Audible’s DRM means it can’t be played without the app (except, latterly, through a web browser — but even there only one with proprietary crapware on it.

There’s not even any software for GNU/Linux to break the DRM, so it seemed like a complete write-off to me.

As a liberal, I am of course against private monopolies anyway (especially companies like Amazon, which also seem to be trying to become monopsonies, and especially monopolies of forms of information dissemination), but I’m especially against ones which *stop my wife being able to read books* for no good reason.

But a little while ago, Holly’s Blackberry broke, and she got an Android device instead. Less accessible (touchscreens are almost as bad for blind her as for dyspraxic me), but they do at least have an Audible app for them (neither of us like using non-free software, but we both do when there’s no alternative).

I saw there was a three-month free trial of Audible with my Amazon Prime account, so I signed up for it last month and Holly’s been happily listening to Stephen Fry reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories (rather sweetly, she says they’re not as good as when I read them to her. I suspect she’s the only person in the world who’d prefer a bloke with a nasal Scouse accent who can’t pronounce the letter “r” properly to Stephen Fry as a narrator though…) — that counted as one book, incidentally, so was the free book just for the first month, all 100 or so hours of it.

Today, while looking through the comments on File770, I noticed someone linking to a free audiobook short story by Ben Aaronovitch, part of his Rivers of London series. It came out yesterday, and is Audible-only (get it here), I got it because I quite like the Rivers books, and I can always listen to it in my web browser, because it’s only twenty-nine minutes, and I’m not going to complain too much about free (to quote from Nez’s Infinite Tuesday, which I reviewed yesterday, “never complain about the air conditioning on a private jet”).

So I got it, and went to the Library section of the Audible website to see how to listen to it in the browser. I saw a “download” link. Just out of interest I thought I’d download the file — if nothing else, I could store the encrypted file until such time as someone *did* write software to crack the encryption.

Being me, I thought “well, as long as I’ve downloaded it, I might as well just see what happens if I try playing it in VLC” — the filename was ARareBookofCunningDeviceUnabridged_mp3[tons of gibberish].aa, so I thought it *might* be just a wrapper round an MP3 file, though that didn’t seem likely given what I know about Audible’s DRM practices.

I tried it, and it Just Worked.

I thought maybe that was because it was a freebie, so I tried the Sherlock Holmes books. They worked too. I have no other books in the Audible account, so I couldn’t check any more (I’ll check when the membership rolls over next week, and see if whatever Holly gets then will download too). I looked online to see if I could find an announcement of the DRM being removed — none seems to exist. I looked to see if VLC had announced they were breaking the DRM — I found this, in which one person says a couple of months ago that they’d had the same surprising experience of it Just Working, but only on GNU/Linux not on Windows, and one person replies saying “no you didn’t”.

So, either:
VLC on GNU/Linux (but not on Windows) has an unadvertised DRM-stripping feature
Audible have stopped using DRM
Audible’s DRM somehow depends on a Windows operating-system hook, and the actual files are just MP3s in a wrapper which says to the OS “don’t open this”
or Audible are making some but not all files available DRM-free, without telling anyone which those are.

Now I’ll note that neither of the books I’ve tried rely on a print publisher — the Aaronovitch is published by Audible themselves and isn’t available in any other format, while the Holmes books are obviously public domain — so that may point towards the last option, but my *guess* is that Audible DRM has either been removed or has been rendered unusable on GNU/Linux.

So if you’re a GNU/Linux user who, like me, hasn’t wanted to use Audible for reasons of anti-DRMness and freedom, you might as well at least sign up for the free trial and experiment. If you do, I’d be interested to know what your experience is.

If Amazon/Audible *have* got rid of the DRM, then good for them. If VLC have managed to strip the DRM, then good for *them*. But either way I’m glad that at least some books can now be listened to by people in freedom, and that the small but non-zero number of blind people who rely on free software for ethical or other reasons will not be *completely* cut off from these books. I’m just rather surprised that whoever’s responsible hasn’t publicised it — and I hope that by doing so I’m not encouraging Audible to reverse this. (This is the problem with restrictions on free speech, like DRM — they breed, and discourage other speech).

But anyway, now I’m off to listen to the new Aaronovitch story, using VLC…

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13 Responses to Has Audible Quietly Dropped the DRM?

  1. davidgerard says:

    What does ffmpeg say the file is?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Should have thought of that. “Audio: mp3, 22050 Hz, mono, s16p, 32 kb/s”
      So it looks like they’re DRM-free files, not a VLC thing.

      • davidgerard says:

        More experimentation here:

        I got a sample file from Ricky which, if I’m understanding this spew of ffmpeg error messages correctly (which I may not be), is MPEG-4 container, with something ffmpeg thinks is AAC audio inside but mangled so much ffmpeg can’t make sense of it. VLC plays it, but with no audio output. Experimentation proceeds …

        • davidgerard says:

          Ricky usually plays this with iTunes (which understands Audible DRM) or the Audible app. So the mangled AAC is probably the encryption.

          • Andrew Hickey says:

            Could well be that it’s serving different files to different browsers/apps? There’s clearly *something* odd going on here. I’ll test whatever book Holly gets when her account ticks over tomorrow…

  2. Hey Andrew,

    Nate from The Digital Reader here. this is an interesting find, if true. I will look into it.

    • davidgerard says:

      See above for more diagnosis. They’re still supplying encrypted files of other books. I would guess this one is plain mp3 because it’s a promotion … also, the encrypted file I see is from audible.com, not audible.co.uk …

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      We just got another book (it took a while for my wife to choose the book she wanted for this month’s subscription, hence the delay in further updates), and once again it downloaded DRM-free and was a 32kps un-DRM’d mono MP3 file.
      I’m thinking this might be an OS/browser issue, and they might *only* be providing it DRM-free if downloaded on GNU/Linux.
      (We’ve been able to download books DRM-free on two different machines, both running Debian and downloading using Chrome)

      • Yes, I tested it with a user agent switcher and I got DRMed audiobooks when I pretended to run macOS. (there was no option for Linux)

        I think it is an OS dependent loophole, yes.

  3. davidgerard says:

    Hah! The .aax files have pissweak “encryption”. There’s a 4-byte “activation secret”. https://apple.stackexchange.com/questions/222917/how-do-i-use-ffmpeg-to-convert-audible-files

    This apparently gets your activation secret from the Audible servers. I haven’t tried it. https://github.com/inAudible-NG/audible-activator

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