sharingI was considering mentioning this xkcd comic strip on the evils of DRM the other day, but didn’t think it was really worth bringing up on its own. However, my friend Eric A. Burns has posted a most cogent analysis of the strip on his blog, and I do think that’s worth mentioning.

The strip has to do with a tree that has a USB port embedded in it, offering an e-book copy of the Shel Silverstein book The Giving Tree—except that, due to DRM, the people who download it can’t read it and “lending is not enabled”.

Burns points out that the metaphor xkcd artist Randall Monroe is trying to make here simply doesn’t work in context. The tree in the original book gives of itself things that belong to it—its fruit, its branches, its trunk, etc. It doesn’t give (or lend) something made by someone else. Burns writes:

Look, I’m all for DRMless electronic books — especially since 95% of my book purchases are electronic now. (Honestly, it’s to the point that when I get a paper book, it seems needlessly inconvenient to me.) But… this just doesn’t work. That it feels like an anvil being hammered down on top of it all and the surrealist element isn’t executed well enough to break either the willing suspension of disbelief or absurdist thresholds (a USB port in a tree? The tree is… one big flash drive? Huh?) just makes it more jarring.

And below the post, a commenter going by “Terrible Idea” suggests that the strip actually sends the opposite message to the point Monroe was trying to make.

At the end of The Giving Tree, the tree is nothing but a dead stump because it has given every part of itself. At the end of this strip, the tree is very much alive and well. So, protecting its IP with DRM literally saves this tree’s life from the usual selfish humans who would just take, take, take. In what way could this possibly be construed as a bad deal for the tree (or by metaphor, the company that would use DRM)?

And as a final irony, out of curiosity I checked both Amazon and Barnes & Noble and determined that the book The Giving Tree is not actually available as a DRMed e-book at all—though it can be downloaded as a DRM-free PDF from a Peruvian(?) university, or read online in HMTL at (albeit in both cases without the illustrations that help make it such a classic book, and probably without permission from the Silverstein estate). [UPDATE: The book was finally made available for Kindle as of February 18, 2014.]

Monroe has had some great, on-point strips about DRM in the past (for example the ones we mentioned here, here, here, and here), so it’s a little weird that his latest one falls so flat.


  1. You can make very different kinds of arguments against DRM. For instance, from the retail perspective, DRM hassles eat up so much revenue that interoperability is not yet economically feasible. From a customer perspective, it makes the product less attractive than the pirated alternative. From the author perspective, it hampers the advertising effect that lended paper books used to have.

    But Munroe is simply taking another perspective: he does not care about the economy. After all, we have a culture or reading and writing not because of the economy of publishing and retail, but the other way around: the justification of that economy lies in its contribution to our culture. DRM does not enable culture, it harms it. DRM only enables a particular business model.

    That too much giving kills the Giving Tree is an interesting point to make (but then we will have to rush headlong into the discussion of the post-scarcity economy of immaterial goods). The XKCD strip simply refers to the basic frustration of the one who wants to give, and is not allowed to.

    • But that’s exactly where the strip misses the point. The tree in this strip isn’t trying to give of itself. It’s trying to give away something someone else created and it just bought a copy of. That’s pretty much the exact polar opposite of how the tree in the original work gives its own bits and pieces until there’s nothing left of it but a stump.

      I’m as much in favor of being able to share e-books with close friends and family as the next guy, just the same way you’d share a printed book back and forth. But comparing handing copies of someone else’s work out to complete strangers (there’s no evidence this tree “knows” the two characters the way the one in the story did) to sacrificing oneself in the service of another? That just doesn’t work.

  2. I took a slightly different view of this comic when I first read it. The tree in the comic is trying to give away content it purchased, much as a collector might give away collectables to family and close friends.

    I envision the tree has having once had a grand collection of books, trying to share them with the world in the same way as I could hand you (or anyone) a printed copy, and being unable to meet this calling due to DRM; thus the visitors loose out on the cultural benefits of passing on that which was legally purchased.

    (I know this is an older post, but I found it on a Google search and figured I’d add to the conversation.)

  3. Not really on point. In fact, I think that given this stance, one can argue that although DRM is good for the tree in the comic, it’s very bad for the people in the comic; although the tree is saved, nothing was actually given. So the tree is kind of useless. It’s sort of the opposite aesop as the original story, and the pros and cons are reversed. Before you argue something like “if you’ve purchased reading rights you can read from the tree”, note that the tree in the original story provides things that you can’t really get from other sources (apples, wood, etc.), so you can’t really say that this tree just contains that file. It’s more like it is the only distributor of said file, and if you know what you’re looking for you’re already conflicting with the original story. This argument could be refined a bit, but I’m really lazy.

  4. To add on to the previous comment, you can also note that the modern artist (represented by the tree in the comic) will not get his/her work heard as much as an older artist, and so is not as “happy” as the tree in the original story. In both cases, the products of the tree are rather meaningless to the tree itself; the tree is more interested in how its products are used, and in the DRM version, they’re not used at all comparatively.

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