Scary complaints mounting about Amazon Kindle’s DRM (Updated)

infit-5I’m a big fan of Amazon’s electronic reader, the Kindle, but I have to admit that stories about the digital rights management software embedded in Kindle books are starting to make me very nervous. Digital rights management, or DRM, is the euphemism for restrictive software limits that copyright owners frequently require in digitally licensed versions of their books, movies, songs and so on. Ostensibly, DRM is to prevent consumers from pirating the copyrighted works but it’s also true that DRM-enforced limits reduce the value of digital works and help preserve the market for old-fashioned analog stuff like print books, CDs and DVDs.

One of the most recent DRM horror stories is completely acknowledged by Amazon. Some publishers and authors objected that the new text-to-speech function of the Kindle2 and Kindle DX violated copyright (arguing that it infringed on their rights to separately license and sell audio books). So Amazon gave publishers the ability to “turn off” the text-to-speech function for any item sold in the Kindle store. Sure enough, vast swaths of Kindle books and other materials had the text-to-speech ban imposed. And there’s no specific disclosure when you go to buy an item in the Kindle store. It obviously should be listed in each item’s “Product Details” section. Very bad.

Other scary stories come to us anecdotally. In some cases, they are clearly exaggerated. But taken together, they paint an ugly picture of limits placed on consumers without proper disclosure. Seems like a matter that the Federal Trade Commission or one of the many enterprising state attorneys general should look into immediately. I’m not one of those anti-Amazon bashers complaining about an imagined monopoly but I am worried that consumers’ rights are being trampled in the same vein as deceptive car leases or hidden credit card penalties which harmed people in the past.

Just today, a friend sent me this link about a woman guy who discovered a hidden and undisclosed limit imposed by publishers on the number of times an ebook can be downloaded (but see below – the writer has now backtracked somewhat) to a Kindle or the Kindle iPhone app. This flies in the face of clear promises made on Amazon’s web site:

Automatic Library Backup: Download Your Books Anytime for Free

A copy of every book you purchased from the Kindle Store is backed up online at Amazon.com in case you ever need to download it again. You can wirelessly re-download books for free any time. This allows you to make room for new titles on your Kindle, knowing that Amazon is storing your personal library of Kindle books. We even back up your last page read and annotations, so you’ll never lose those, either. Think of it as a bookshelf in your attic–even though you don’t see it, you know your books are there.

[UPDATE 6/21 The Kindle 2 Review, without any real confirmation, is claiming that there is no per-book download limit and that the post above results from a misunderstanding about the six device limit. That's clearly not the case if you read the GearDiary post and comments. I've sent an email to Amazon's pr department to see if they will clarify.]

[UPDATE2 6/22 Dan Cohen, who made the original claim, has now backtracked on a new GearDiary post, saying the problem relates to a different undisclosed DRM limit. Conceding that there's no per-book limit on re-downloading, Cohen says that while most Kindle books can be shared on six devices at a time, some books have a lower limit imposed by the publisher.]

Another story appears to have been exaggerated but it’s still worth noting. This guy apparently had his whole Amazon account suspended for some reason. That meant, along with not being able to do anything on the Amazon web site, he couldn’t access the web page for managing material on his Kindle. He could no longer re-download items he’d purchased and since deleted from his Kindle. That is crummy, though we probably don’t have the full story of why his account was suspended. And it’s simply not true that his Kindle was remotely disabled or that he couldn’t read ANY ebooks he’d purchased.

Another crazy, undisclosed limitation prevents consumers from highlighting and clipping  more than a certain portion of any ebook into their “My Clippings.txt” file. Again, just anecdotal reports of the secret Kindle clipping limit have surfaced so far. And again, there is zero disclosure of this limitation in the Kindle Amazon store.

All of this sadly reminds me of the pathetic state of legally-sold digital music in the days before Apple opened its iTunes store. Each song had a variety of DRM-enforced limits like whether or not it could be burned to a CD or how many times it could be copied to a portable MP3 player. It was insane — every song had different DRM limits. Ultimately, Apple came along and initially enforced consistent limits. Later, Apple dumped the DRM altogether. Amazon and book publishers need to follow quickly or risk alienating consumers and sending them off to less-legal avenues to satisfy their ebook desires.

What do you think? And have you experienced these or other Kindle DRM limits?

(Special thanks for this post go out to the Teleread blog which chronicles so much of what is happening in the fast-moving e-book economy)

  • http://www.geardiary.com/ Judie Lipsett

    Hi, thanks for the link back to Gear Diary. I'd just like to point out that the download limitation was originally discovered and posted on by Dan Cohen, not one of the women writing on our site. Cheers. ;-)

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    Thanks for the head's up, Judie. I corrected my gender reference to the link :)

  • http://www.geardiary.com/ Judie Lipsett

    You're awesome! I just wanted to make sure that credit went where it was due. :-)

  • http://burningbird.net/ Shelley Powers

    Did not know about the download limits. That's not documented anywhere.

    I recommend people file a complaint with the FCC about these “undocumented restrictions” based on Amazon's DRM support.

  • http://ireaderreview.com/ abhi

    wow – i'm the one who has no real confirmation.

    how about this – numerous kindle owners and me have downloaded our books more than 6 times, and confirmed that it works.

    the gear diary article is based on what he heard from a customer service representative. even the screenshot he's using CLEARLY says 'book cannot be downloaded to this device'.

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    Abhi,

    Thanks for the quick comment back. As I said in my original post,
    evidence for some of the DRM limits is anecdotal and somewhat
    exaggerated. I'm concerned about the big picture. I use the phrase “no
    real confirmation” to describe your post because Dan Cohen says
    customer service reps at Amazon told him that this download limit
    exists and no one from Amazon told you that it doesn't. You've
    experimented, been unable to reproduce the problem in your experiments
    and offered your own interpretation of the error message Cohen
    received. That's not the same as Amazon confirming that the download
    limit is phony, which hopefully they'll do soon.

    -Aaron

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    The again, here's Cohen back tracking. http://www.geardiary.com/2009/06/21/kindlegate-

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  • http://www.gamingwithchildren.com Michael Anderson

    I think the word 'backtrack' is misleading and demonstrates some bias on your part. Had he gotten a clear answer from Amazon to begin with perhaps he would have been more clear and succinct in his wording, but he worked at clarifying as he learned more.

    Because many gadget-heads grab whatever is new and hot and immediately put whatever apps / games / utilities they like on there, they represent a bit of a challenge case for these situations. What Dan saw was what looked like a potential download issue – and it makes sense, as he had put these same books on the same devices before … and now with a new device he was unable to add only certain books.

    The fact that different books / publishers / whatever impose different limits on consumers *WITHOUT CONSUMER'S KNOWLEDGE* is rather troubling.

    The fact that you can add devices but not 'revoke', which is a fairly standard industry took, means that these situations will hapen more and more.

    So I wouldn't use 'backtrack' but clarification, as that is what has really happened.

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  • drlindaline

    Yes I have ordered over a dozen books, 3 for the class I teach at my church. I use the clippings as my teachings notes on the books I require for the class. Only 1/2 of the clippings from two of the books printed out before I got the message 'You have reached the clipping limit for this item” So the other half of my clippings for those books do not print out. I have asked for help on this problem from Amazon, we will see what the response is. It simply doesn't work to try teaching with only half of your notes available.

  • drlindaline

    Yes I have ordered over a dozen books, 3 for the class I teach at my church. I use the clippings as my teachings notes on the books I require for the class. Only 1/2 of the clippings from two of the books printed out before I got the message 'You have reached the clipping limit for this item” So the other half of my clippings for those books do not print out. I have asked for help on this problem from Amazon, we will see what the response is. It simply doesn't work to try teaching with only half of your notes available.

  • kitty snell

    MY kindle crapped out and they want me spend 89 bucks for a refurbished one, if I send mine back. Who's to say they aren't selling crapped out Kindles for 189. I have only had mine for less than 2 years, yet there's nothing they can do to help me other than offer me to spend more money. Class Action? I should hope so. WHat a racket!!

  • Lynne

    I find that the kindle is a very fragile, undependable product.  Mine has been replaced MULTIPLE times, and since the warranty is out, they want me to pay 40 for a replacement.  I am fed up with Amazon.  I’ll buy a Nook and say goodbye Amazon.