I’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)