eBooks, DRM, and Amazon's Kindle

There are days I wonder if I would be as vehemently against DRM as I am, if I didn’t use Unix as my primary operating system. I suspect I would be, as typically, I don’t really miss the things that avoiding DRM technologies causes me to be unable to use. So, when Amazon announced their Kindle last month, I didn’t really care. I love eBooks, and I think they’re a great way for people who would otherwise be unable to publish to get their ideas out there. But, I’m really careful about who I buy from.

Steve Jackson Games’ e23 store has made a point of only offering their downloadable eBooks in PDF, without DRM (actually, I have downloaded several files from there that had ‘anti-copy’ restrictions to prevent copying and pasting, which were easily circumvented). Admittedly, there are a large number of writers that won’t publish through e23 because of the lack of DRM, but that’s fine, because I don’t need to buy their material. By specifically lacking DRM, I don’t have to worry about whether or not a file will open on my computer today, or in the future. Furthermore, they acknowledge that sometimes we lose files, or maybe we need to free up some space, and I can download any file I’ve ever bought from my account until I either lose my credentials or they go belly up. It’s not hard to prevent users sharing logins, because it’s pretty obvious when you have a lot of users logging in from very geographically disparate locations. People who are sharing files, aren’t using shared logins anymore, it’s just too easy to transfer the files using other means.

In a blog entry on the future of reading, blogger Mark Pilgrim discusses how eBooks, as they are being implemented today, stand to kill the way we can use books. Several of the points that he makes (and are made in the comments) are quite frightening. He specifically targets the Kindle, but any DRM laden technology will suffer from similar problems. DRM takes away the ability to resell something. Don’t like a book or CD enough to keep it around? Too bad, it’s yours and yours alone. Plus, DRM technologies almost always ‘phone home’, allowing the vendor to track amazing amounts of information about what you are up to. It’s one thing for a company to make advertising decisions based on what I’ve bought, but to track what I’m reading and listening to, in order to make continued analysis of my personal profile? I don’t think so.

It’s part of the problem with this interconnected world we live in, and part of the reason why internet advertising is so scary to so many people. They stand to link a browsing history to each and every IP (better Identification is also possible), in order to form a picture of a person’s browsing habits. Admittedly, I do have Google’s ads on this site, but I’ve typically seen the ads are related to the content of the page. This doesn’t mean that Google isn’t using their unique position to form a picture of user’s interests and browsing habits, but I haven’t seen any good evidence of such tracking. Google is typically against DRM, but the point is that, like DRM-based content providers, they are in a position to harvest a frightening amount of information about users. Just imagine what Microsoft is capable of in that same regard.

Typically, I’ve been against DRM because of the limitations it places on when, where, and how I can use my media. But the comments made regarding the Kindle terms of service raise the other frightening issue, both on tracking, but also the clause that allows Amazon to functionally stop your Kindle from working, if they feel you’ve used their product outside of the terms and conditions they’ve placed upon it. It’s a kill-switch, and a time-bomb, and as a user you’re going to be pissed when it’s triggered. Of course, Apple has done the same thing with the iPhone, and somehow those restrictions haven’t stopped the iPhone from being one of the most demanded devices this year.

As it stands today, DRM has won. Users don’t value their freedom enough to fight against it. Only by educating the users about why DRM is ultimately going to hurt them (which will also include instilling them with a sense of value for their privacy), will this get any better. Speak out, certainly. But do it clearly, and be able to support your position. We need to convince the common man, and not the content providers, that it’s time to do the right thing.