Don’t Buy That Kindle

I wrote the following as an op-ed. No one I sent it to wanted to publish it. Oh well. I still like it. I also recently had the chance to play with a Kindle. The interface didn’t make sense, but the overall readability and form factor were good. I stand by my bottom line: the DRM should be a deal-killer for Joe Consumer.

Thinking of buying Amazon’s new electronic-book reader for the book-lover in your life? Think again. With e-books, it’s buyer beware. Amazon’s named the device the Kindle, “to evoke the crackling ignition of knowledge,” in journalist Steven Levy’s phrase. Unfortunately, the name is more revealing than intended.  The only “crackling ignition” most Kindle users will hear is the sound of their e-books going up in flames.

A portable device with a screen as clear as paper but that lets you carry around a whole bookcase sounds like a good idea. Previous e-book readers have been notorious flops, but if anyone could make an easy-to-use gadget with an unbelievably wide selection of titles, it ought to be Amazon. Sadly, they’ve made exactly the same mistake that doomed their predecessors: DRM.

The Kindle’s DRM (an acronym for “digital rights management”) is technology designed to stop you from making unauthorized copies of the e-books you buy. That sounds innocuous enough, until you realize how much is “unauthorized.”  You can’t lend an e-book with DRM to a friend, sell it to a used book store, or tear out pages for a collage. One e-book edition of Alice in Wonderland told users they weren’t allowed to read it aloud.

In order to enforce these restrictions, devices with DRM demand explicit authorization for even the simplest actions. The Kindle won’t show you so much as one page of an e-book with DRM unless it gets a go-ahead from Amazon. The complicated back-and-forth of authorization also creates its own problems. When a key Microsoft server crashed, DRM caused thousands of copies of Windows to be falsely marked as counterfeit.

If the manufacturer gets out of the DRM business, your media are now trapped in an abandoned prison.  Major League Baseball sells downloadable videos of games. It changed DRM systems this year and pulled the plug on the old one. Result: fans who spent hundreds of dollars buying videos can never watch them again.  Ever.  Only after some widely-reported fan outrage did the big leagues offer to replace the now-useless old versions.  The Rocket e-book reader had DRM that worked, more or less.  Then Rocket stopped making e-book readers.  Oops.  Once your current Rocket device breaks, that’s the end of the line for the e-books on it.

Even the e-books Amazon itself sells in the Mobipocket Reader format are useless on the Kindle.   When Amazon announces the Kindle 2.0 a few years from now — call it the Log — what will happen to your Kindle 1.0 books?  Buying a Kindle means making a long-term bet that Amazon will stay in the e-book business and that this e-book reader will succeed where many others have failed.

E-books with DRM are a particularly dangerous trap for libraries.  Many consumers are willing to buy a book and read it once, but libraries are in it for the long haul.  They buy books to preserve history and to meet the reading needs of future generations.  The printed book has done pretty well by them; books from before Gutenberg are still with us.  Kindle e-books will be lucky to last one one-hundredth as long.

The biggest disappointment of the Kindle is that, when it comes to music, Amazon understands the dangers of DRM. Its MP3 download store, which uses no DRM, is delighting music fans and shaking up the digital music business.  With its seamless one-click-to-buy design, Amazon could convince fearful publishers that they need to embrace a digital future, rather than hiding behind the tallest fences technology can erect.   But until Amazon stops smothering the Kindle with DRM, it will produce only sparks, not any real light.

I guess Kindle buyers are trusting that Amazon will treat their paying customers better than Major League Baseball does. But then, who doesn’t treat their paying customers better than Major League Baseball?

iTunes is starting to drop DRM, right? It was a concession Amazon made to publishers to get the thing off the ground. And it seems to be selling fairly well so far…

I really hate DRM as well, except I will be publishing my own personal works on Kindle, and somehow when I am the publisher, it’s pretty hard to hate it. Lets just be realistic and say I hate it for everybody else’s books, but love it for my own. Seriously I think the copyright is the right way to protect ebooks, no different than for books made from dead trees. And don’t give me any of that “license” crap — for a play okay, but not for a book.

But you don’t ever need to put even one DRM book on your Kindle. I like mobipocket very much (especially their hundreds of free ebooks), and their ebooks all install perfectly — with a USB cable Kindle provides, or by letting Kindle install it for 10 cents. But if that seems to expensive for you (gasp!), then you can zip everything together, and send it all to Kindle for the just one 10 cent charge. Kindle will put them on your Kindle reader all properly unzipped again for the single 10 cent charge.

You don’t even need to pay the 10 cents. If you send it to [your Kindle’s address], the converted files are sent to the e-mail address on your Amazon account and you can transfer it to the Kindle via USB.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with DRM, so long as they mark down the price accordingly. But they don’t.

If I were Amazon I’d start up some sort of subscription service, a la Netflix: pay $15 (or so) per month, “check out” up to three DRM’ed books at a time, read as many as you can. Consumers go into it with the expectation that they’re paying for volume and stock, not for possession, and so DRM becomes much less of a big deal.

Maybe Defective By Design would like to publish them. I’ll send the FSF campaign staff an inquiry about this and CC you.

I’m persuaded and won’t be buying a Kindle because of DRM (and the $400 price tag). But why would publishers would agree to make books available without DRM? As long as the free sharing of copyrighted digital content remains widespread, DRM will continue to be a tragedy, but not necessarily a mistake.

I’m buying a Kindle to read books on. I’ve got plenty of “real” books that I can give to friends, tear up for collages, or whatever (actually I would not do that as I would never mutilate a book). I do not need to lend out every book I read—call it selfish, but actually I think my friends prefer to pick their own books to read. I’m also an author and I LIKE the DRM. I would be furious if someone took my books and could make unlimited copies and post them on the Web so that everyone could have them for free. 99.7% of books never make royalties so authors have to have second jobs anyway—book advances are paltry unless you’re Stephen King. If you want authors to write, you can’t just give away UNLIMITED copies of their books. The record industry now depends on live performances for money but at least that’s something that can be done. No one is going to pay all that much to hear someone read from their books, and even Stephen King is not going to fill Madison Square Garden. Depriving publishers of most of their income is a terrible idea. Stop complaining about DRM. You don’t have to use a Kindle at all. But it’s not a reasonable complaint against it.

Personally I buy books to read and reselling them is not on my mind. If I resell them it is for much less than I paid for them. Once resold, I no longer have the book. Without DRM, you could give a book to the whole world, or resell it infinite times, and still have it.

If you eat at a restaurant, you can’t share that food with the whole world. If you go to a movie, you can’t share the movie afterward. If you buy a DVD and put the movie on the Web, or make copies and sell them, you’re doing something illegal. The plastic of the DVD makes it possible for you to resell the DVD, and you’re paying more for a new DVD than you pay to go to a movie where you are simply consuming the movie as intellectual property. You pay less for an ebook than a new book and you’re giving up the resale rights. You can continue to read the ebook over and over, so it’s already a better value than going to a movie theater. If you want both a low price and the ability to resell, I suggest buying and selling used books. Authors do not make any money off a used book sale, but there is limited harm done because each used book was once bought new. Without DRM, one book could be bought once and never again.

These whiny complaints are really embarrassing.