Using iTunes Match to get rid of DRM-protected music

Want to finally get rid of those low quality, DRM infested music tracks you bought from iTunes back before DRM free tracks arrived? Now you can.

When the iTunes Store first opened for business back in 2003, all the music tracks were locked up with a digital rights management (or DRM) scheme called “Fairplay” to prevent sharing. If you bought a track from the store, you could only play on it one of five authorized computers or via iPods that you had synced with one of those five. But not only could the songs not be shared with friends, you also couldn’t play the music you had just legally acquired on many other legal devices you might purchase, like a Sonos wireless speaker or almost all other non-Apple MP3 players. While DRM did nothing to discourage piracy, it harrassed, hindered and harried paying customers.

Eventually, the music industry saw the light, thanks in part to Apple agreeing to a huge price hike, and stopped requiring DRM encumbrances. That was a great move but it left a lot of us with collections filled with previously legally purchased music that still had the DRM lockdown. Apple graciously offered to upgrade such tracks to a higher quality, DRM-free version for 30 cents a pop. But the iTunes Plus upgrade service, as it was called, was a disastrous mess.

So I have long had a smart playlist I set up in iTunes to list all my music tracks that still had DRM. And, even after spending a small fortune on iTunes Plus, the list still had several hundred tracks remaining. Well, they were remaining until just the other day when Apple opened its cloud-based iTunes Match service as an extension to its regular iCloud music service. For $25 a year, iTunes Match lets you upload any tracks to iCloud which you owned but had not purchased from iTunes to share among all your registered computers and devices.

There is also another, less-publicized side benefit. Tracks downloaded from iCloud are DRM-free and recorded at the high-quality rate of 256 kilobits per second. This means that if iTunes match matched your leftover DRM-locked, lower quality music, you can finally get out of jail free. Here’s how:

1. Make a smart playlist where “Kind” contains the phrase “Protected AAC audio file” and the “bit rate” is “128 kbps.”

2. Everything that appears on this smart playlist is the old, locked up kind of music track. IMPORTANT: On the view of this list, right click at the top on the categories of stuff where it says Name, Time, Artist etc and add two more categories: “iCloud Download” and “iCloud Status.”

3. Run the “Update iTunes Match” on your library. It’s under the Store menu in iTunes.

4. Now you can start the laborious process of deleting these crummy DRM tracks and getting back better and freer tracks.

5. I started by sorting the list by artist. Then find all the tracks on the smart list that have an iCloud status of “Matched” or “Purchased.” THIS TRICK WILL NOT WORK ON TRACKS WITH A STATUS OF “UPLOADED” OR “ERROR.”

6. Unfortunately, you can’t delete tracks directly from the smart playlist. You have to identify each track on the smart list and then go back to your whole music library on iTunes and find it again. If you are paranoid, click command-I after selecting each track in the main music library to make sure it is indeed DRM locked, visible on the “Kind” line as “Protected AAC audio file.” Delete the track if so. DO NOT CHECK THE BOX THAT SAYS “ALSO DELETE THIS SONG FROM iCLOUD” — do not, not, not check that box. On the next dialogue box that comes up, click that you want to throw away the file in the trash.

7. Now that you have deleted the old DRM-ed file, the song should still be listed in iTunes but with a download from the cloud icon:

Click on the iCloud icon and a fresh new copy of the track will be downloaded from Apple’s servers, one that is DRM-free and 256 kbps. Sweet!

There are all kinds of tracks of that can’t be re-downloaded using this trick, unfortunately. In my library of 5,000 odd songs, I am still stuck with 25 that are low-quality, DRM-locked versions. Most are special versions of songs that the iTunes store no longer carries like an acoustic version of U2’s “Stuck in a Moment.” Some are from albums that are no longer sold for download, like Prince’s “Musicology.” Seven are tracks from the original, self-published release of Nellie McKay’s album “Pretty Little Head” that were excluded when Sony re-released the album later.

In some cases, though, the songs iTunes Match couldn’t quite match were just duplicates of songs I’d long ago upgraded via iTunes Plus. A little library clean up is in order in these cases. For example, a duplicate version of Matchbox 20’s song “3AM” was hanging around as the older DRM-locked file because it was listed as “3 AM” (note the extra space). I just deleted the duplicate from both my library and iCloud.

And that’s it! Good luck cleaning up your library.

Google eBooks review: Liked the rough edge, not much else

Google’s long-awaited electronic bookstore has finally arrived with the promise of great “openness” for all. But in the end, Google’s offering is merely another in a long line of ebook platforms that offers some pluses and minuses but in no way, shape or form revolutionizes the market. Whether you want to talk about pricing, selection, business model, organization, availability on different PC and mobile operating systems or any other basic criteria for comparison, Google eBooks is either a little better or a little worse than its predecessors. Bottom line? Very little innovation here but a set of features that may be appealing for some consumers.

Basically, Google has opened an ebook store stocked with about 200,000 commercial books comprised of the usual stuff you find in stores. That compares with about 300,000 commercial ebooks from Barnes & Noble¹ and almost 800,000 in Amazon’s Kindle store. I can’t figure out how many books are in Apple’s iBookstore but it appears to be a lot less than Amazon or B&N. Availability of recent and popular stuff in the Google store seems pretty good.

Prices not controlled by publishers (aka not on the “agency model”) are higher that Amazon’s in all cases I could find. For example, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Ice fantasy series, A Game of Thrones, is $7.01 at Google and $6.29 at Amazon. The start of the world’s most romantic teenage vampire series, Twilight, is $9.99 at Google and $8.99 at Amazon. Of course, four of the big five publishers have worked hard to wipe out discounting with agency pricing (which lets them set a uniform price across all ebookstores), so Amazon’s price advantage is much less significant than it used to be.

And though Google has added a vast repertoire of reader reviews thanks to a partnership with Goodreads, the ebookstore web site itself still seems awfully spare and lags far behind B&N’s or Amazon’s in fit and finish. For example, ebook search results can only be sorted by relevance or date published, while Amazon also offers sorting price, sales rate and star rating. Amazon recently added gifting to the Kindle store, another cool feature so far missing from Google.

Google emphasizes that they also have some 2.8 million older, out-of-copyright free ebooks, the vast majority of which are useless effluvia with a few tens of thousands of volumes previously widely available for free on other ebook platforms (think Mark Twain, Jane Austen or Herman Melville).

Like Amazon but unlike Apple, Google stores all your ebooks for you in a virtual library that you can access from myriad apps and platforms. So far, you can read Google ebooks via any web browser that has javascript enabled, dedicated apps for Android and Apple iOS and any ereader device compatible with Adobe’s latest Digital Editions digital rights management, or DRM, system including both the Sony Reader and Barnes & Noble Nook. Notably absent so far  are apps for Blackberry, Windows Phone 7 or HP/Palm’s WebOS.

Purchases must be made with a Google checkout account, which can be added to a typical Google account you may already have for gmail or other services. This could be a hurdle for the adoption of Google’s ebook platform because I’m increasingly convinced that the failure of Google’s payment network to gain much popularity is holding back the company’s Android app store for paid apps. Apple through iTunes and Amazon through its vast web site already have payment info on tens of millions of consumers, so they can easily tap existing customers for new offerings. Google not so much.

One aspect that has been largely overlooked in all the discussion of Google eBooks is the powerful push it could potentially give for adoption of Adobe’s “Digital Editions” DRM. Previously used by Barnes & Noble and Sony but ignored by Apple and Amazon, the Adobe DRM allows consumers to buy from one ebookstore but view with a reader from another ebookstore. That is, you can now buy an ebook from Google and read it on your Nook or buy an ebook from Sony and read it with one of Google e-reader apps. Well, that’s true at least in theory — there are inevitably technical snafus that have to be resolved whenever a new vendor comes aboard. Google’s entry adds more platforms and apps for B&N and Sony ebook buyers as well as opening a new supply of ebooks for those devices.

If you check out the page Adobe maintains that lists “Digital Edition” compatible devices, you’ll discover that Sony, Koboi and even Barnes & Noble’s Nook can now read ebooks bought from Google. Their press release touting this compatibility is here.

The Google app's natural spacing

It seems like the Google effort is great news for Sony ereader owners, since they have the worst ebookstore, the highest ebook prices and the fewest platform choices of apps. Likewise, people who become big fans of the Google ebook ecosystem may be well-served by buying Sony hardware.

What about a simple comparison of the iPhone/iPad app? I’m a big user of the Kindle and its app generally has more features than Google’s app, including highlighting, looking up words in a dictionary and so on.

But the Google app does have one setting that makes me incredibly jealous and that’s allowing for a non-justified right margin, a jagged ending of words from line to line that makes reading easier on the eye (or maybe the brain). In the Kindle app, you’re stuck with ugly justified lines and uneven spacing between words. Yuck.


¹It’s really hard to tell how many of the 2.1 million ebooks B&N has when you search for everything are in-copyright, modern books. I’m estimating by adding together the categories of “Under $10” at 202,000 plus another 100,000 or so listed in the “$10 to $25,” “$25 to $50,” and “Over $50” categories. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to tell how many ebooks are in Apple’s iBookstore.

Free Kindle apps getting magazines, lending coming too

I’m not sure what Kindle whiners are going to have left to whine about by next year (well, yes I do, DRM, but I digress…). Some big news emerged on Amazon’s Kindle discussion board the other day.

First, the Kindle team revealed that you’re soon going to be able to read electronic newspapers and magazines on any of the various Kindle apps. Right now, you can only read subscriptions on a hardware Kindle. That’s going to be huge in establishing Kindle’s position as the leading e-reading ecosystem. Many is the time I have wished to read a New Yorker article on my iPhone but my Kindle subscription won’t go there. The post explains:

“Our vision is Buy Once, Read Everywhere, and we’re excited to make this possible for Kindle periodicals in the same way that it works now for Kindle books. More details when we launch this in the coming weeks.”

In addition to being a great feature, this goes right to the heart of a common misunderstanding of the Kindle ecosystem. Amazon is running both the hardware reader business and the e-bookstore business as separate, money-making operations. It’s not a razor blades and razors business.

The second big change sounds great but will likely be less great in practice. Starting soon, you will — in theory — be able to lend out ebooks you’ve bought to anyone else who has a Kindle acount. Loans last for 14 days and you can’t read an ebook during the period you’ve loaned it out, obviously.

Why great only in theory? Amazon has to give publishers a say in whether the lending feature will be available on any particular ebook. Based on how few ebooks support Kindle’s read-out-loud feature, I’m guessing most major publishers will be hitting the “no lending” button all the while continuing to spout off about the value of books. Blech. They’d have a lot more credibility if they treated customers with respect and offered the same economic bargain available with print books, including lending and resale rights.

Apple still isn’t going to kill Amazon’s Kindle, or any other ereader

jobsSteve Jobs’ latest mouthing off about the market for electronic books and dedicated ereader devices like the Amazon Kindle has sparked the usual conflagration of comments, interpretations and predictions. Some are way off-base, others quite savvy. But after seeing a bit on Techcrunch claiming that everyone was misinterpreting Jobs, it seems like some further clarity is needed. Top Apple folks like Jobs sometimes speak less than honestly about the company’s views and intentions. But in this case, Jobs was just stating the obvious and getting in a few digs at Amazon. There’s still not going to be an Apple-branded ebook business and Apple’s still not going to “kill” the Kindle.

So where to start? The story really begins back in January, 2008, when Jobs first commented publicly about the Kindle. But let’s go in reverse chronological order, starting with the goofy Techcrunch post by MC Siegler:

Basically, most people are interpreting what Jobs said about eBook readers to mean that Apple plans to completely stay away from the market. But that’s not actually what Jobs said at all…Translation: We’re making a tablet, and eBooks will be a part of those. Jobs isn’t saying Apple isn’t interested in eBooks, he’s saying that Apple isn’t interested in making a stand-alone eBook reader.

I’m always a little suspect when someone claims to be refuting what “most people” are saying without identifying or linking to any of these supposed people. In fact, for the past three years or so, the question has never much been whether Apple would make a single-purpose, dedicated ereader device (Astute commenter Rex Hammock notes that there was such a debate in mid-2006 over an Apple patent filing but that predates the release of both the Kindle and the Sony Reader). The argument has always been over whether Apple would start selling ebooks on its own out of the iTunes Store, in its own proprietary format, as it does for music and movies. That would require Apple to negotiate directly with book publishers, as it does with the major record labels and Hollywood studios. So here’s what Jobs actually said¹ to Times’ reporter David Pogue the other day:

“I’m sure there will always be dedicated devices, and they may have a few advantages in doing just one thing. But I think the general-purpose devices will win the day because I think people just probably aren’t willing to pay for a dedicated device. You notice Amazon never says how much they sell; usually if they sell a lot of something, you want to tell everybody.

We don’t see that it’s a really big market at this point. And in the future, the more general-purpose devices will tend to win the day. I’m not sure that Amazon, as an example, really cares that much about being in the hardware business. If I were Amazon, I’d love selling stuff where I didn’t have to have a warehouse, didn’t need UPS.”

So does this somehow revive the theory, popular at one time, that Apple is about to start its own line of ebooks, one that will be so successful that Amazon would be forced to drop its entire Kindle effort, stranding Kindle customers with a dead format and useless hardware? Not at all. It’s the status quo all over again². Apple will allow others, including Amazon, to offer ebook readers taking a cut of sales when and where it can. There’s almost nothing newsworthy about what Jobs said!

I used to have to argue against this Apple ebook domination theory all over the place but then in March, 2009, Apple allowed Amazon to post a free Kindle-compatible ereader app in the iTunes app store (several less well known ereader apps had already been approved). That’s when people saw the writing on the wall and conceded. Apple was content to allow others to take all the risks, fight all the fights and see if there was a serious market for ebooks.

Jobs recent comments also sound like he was listening back in June when Jeff Bezos told the Times that Amazon planned to make profits from both Kindle devices and Kindle ebooks — that Kindle was essentially in two different markets:

“The device team has the job of making the most remarkable purpose-built reading device in the world,” Mr. Bezos said. “We are going to give the device team competition. We will make Kindle books, at the same $9.99 price points, available on the iPhone, and other mobile devices and other computing devices.”

Apple’s decision to allow others to sell ebooks for the iPhone/iPod Touch platform isn’t inconsistent with Jobs’ January 2008 comments. Like many others (cough – Forrester – cough, cough), Jobs predicted utter failure for the Kindle, also in an exclusive interview with David Pogue:

Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Of course, the Kindle didn’t go nowhere and the whole conception was hardly flawed. And in Jobs more recent comments, he’s apparently upgraded his view of the ebook market from “nowhere” to not “a really big market at this point.” Maybe in another year, he’ll concede it’s “almost colossal” or something.

In Daring Fireball-fashion, I have two addendum/footnotes:

¹ As MC rightly points out, David Pogue’s post inrterviewing Jobs was altered from the original, deleting several comments. But the change is irrelevent to the points made here. Pogue cut the following direct quote: “We don’t see that it’s a really big market at this point. And in the future, the more general-purpose devices will tend to win the day. I’m not sure that Amazon, as an example, really cares that much about being in the hardware business. If I were Amazon, I’d love selling stuff where I didn’t have to have a warehouse, didn’t need UPS.” And he replaced it with this summary: “He said that Apple doesn’t see e-books as a big market at this point.”

² Please don’t bring up that story about the new music comic book in the iTunes store to argue that Apple’s getting into ebooks, either. Please. (Update: Internet smartie Rex Hammock brings it up in the comments. Frak! Now I’ll have to take a closer look but I think it’s more like fancy liner notes and digital “extras” to sell music tracks than the future of the next Stephen King novel)

Prior coverage:

Apple gives stage to overpriced ebook developer Scrollmotion (6/9/2009)

Insanely great Kindle on iPhone needs one big improvement (3/4/2009)

Apple will not slay Amazon’s Kindle, not even close (8/20/2008)

Sony Reader adds some brilliant features, 3 years late

image-thumb192Almost three years ago, Sony unveiled the first version of its electronic book reader, dubbed, excitingly enough, the Reader. As I predicted at the time (Short-tailed Sony reader needs a much longer one), the device bombed because it was a product in search of a need.

The Reader didn’t offer enough (if any) advantages over reading books the old-fashioned way. You had to go on your computer, buy the books online, download them, link the Reader to your computer and fill it up. Sony had a tiny selection of ebooks for sale priced at about the same level as print books. And the selection was mainly best-sellers. There was no connection to the Internet or blogs or harder-to-find books. There was no search, no online access, no keyboard at all. The only “advantage” was that you could carry a book shelf’s worth of books around. So what.

Amazon’s Kindle, released a year later, got it right, by contrast. The addition of wireless made buying ebooks quick and easy, even on the go. Vastly more ebooks were for sale at low prices that could not be beat. And the ebookstore was open to new additions, uploaded by anyone who wanted to engage, allowing for a blossoming of free or 99 cent ebooks of out-of-copyright classics. The Kindle store included magazines, newspapers and offline-readable blogs. The device bundled a free wireless Internet connection for accessing a wide array of other textual online resources. And, despite what some cranky luddites say, the Kindle’s been a huge success that’s caught the attention of a lot of other companies that now want to play in the ebook market.

Today, hopefully not too late to have a major influence on the evolving ebook ecosystem, Sony has finally come up with a much better reader and a host of innovative features (tip o’ the cap for the news and generally for great ebook coverage to the Teleread blog). The new “Reader Daily Edition” has a 7″ electronic ink, touch-sensitive screen and a wireless connection that works over AT&T’s cell phone network. That’s matching or exceeding some of Kindle’s best features but I’m more excited about the innovations. You’ll be able to use your Sony Reader to borrow ebooks from thousands of libraries like the New York Public Library. You’ll be able to buy ebooks from major independent vendors like And, of course, as I wished for 3 years ago, you can read the million or so out-of-copyright (and permissioned) books Google has scanned into its vast databases.

Sony is also stepping away somewhat from locking content to its line of devices. Sure, Sony’s ebooks will still be locked down with proprietary digital rights management, or DRM, software but at least Sony has switched to Adobe’s somewhat (arguably) more broadly used DRM instead of keeping its own. That means that ebooks bought for the Sony Reader will — we hope — be readable on any other program or device that also licenses the Adobe software. There’s been some confusion, fostered by a misleading New York Times story, that the Sony is selling “open” or unrestricted books. That’s not the case but this is still a big step in the right direction. If Sony got out of the ebook business altogether, other Adobe-licensed reader devices could still access the ebooks (again — we think/hope).

For a while it seemed like Sony was becoming irrelevent in the ebook market, what with the rapid advances from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, Apple iPhone app store participants and so on. Now Sony has shown it’s still in the hunt. Of course, we’ll have to wait and hear from users and reviewers whether all these features work as advertised and if there are any hidden gotchas (the library feature says you must have a card from each particular library, it sounds like). But for now, it’s a bright, shiny day for ebook fans. We can only wait to see what moves Amazon and Barnes & Noble make to react.

Prior coverage:

Yes, Virginia, the Barnes & Noble ebookstore is a Good Thing (7/22/2009)

Amazon Kindle competitor EReader slashes ebook prices (7/5/2009)

Apple gives stage to overpriced ebook developer Scrollmotion (6/9/2009)

Sony ereader seeking wide open wireless (10/3/2008)

Apple will not slay Amazon’s Kindle, not even close (8/20/2008)

Yes, Virginia, the Barnes & Noble ebookstore is a Good Thing

Yesterday, I took a whack at explaining why Barnes & Nobles new online ebook store would turn up the competitive pressure on Amazon’s Kindle world and, more than likely, benefit consumers. But now at least two prominent ebook bloggers are disputing the notion that the new Barnes & Noble ebook store provides important competition for the Amazon Kindle store.

“Jane” at the DearAuthor blog complains that B&N’s effort lacks a dedicated hardware reader (at least until the Plastic Logic reader arrives next year), includes far fewer books people actually want to read and is using a proprietary format that excludes existing Kindle owners. Kassia Krozser, on her Booksquare blog, makes of some of the same points, concluding:

It’s great that Barnes & Noble is offering its customers an ebook option. But to pretend they’re creating serious competition to the Kindle ecosystem is madness. Let’s talk when they have a device and experience that makes the buying and reading of ebooks the best experience technologically possible.

While I certainly agree that B&N’s early ebook effort is somewhat half-baked and rather over-hyped, I find the conclusion that it won’t have any impact on the market puzzling, perhaps even madness. Like I said yesterday, this is a big deal for the ebook market and a net positive for people who buy and read ebooks.

It’s true that B&N does not offer an alternative to people who already own a Kindle (or a Sony eReader for that matter). But it does offer immediate competition for people who buy ebooks to read on mobile devices, like an iPhone — a significant and growing population. And, hopefully, B&N will provide competition in 2010 for people buying a dedicated ereader device for the first time — another significant segment of the market at this early stage. Remember, Kindle store ebook prices are the same for iPhone or Kindle device, so even the limited B&N effort now can have a positive impact on all Kindle users.

It’s also true that the B&N ebook store has far fewer of the most desired books and limits its discounting policy to far fewer titles than Amazon. But Amazon now has to factor in to its Kindle strategy and tactics the current and future existence of a well-heeled, highly-publicized competitor with a top brand name and web site among book-buying consumers. Say Amazon has an undisclosed plan to move typical ebook prices up from $9.99 to $12.50 over the next year (as a recent Wall Street report suggested). Now it has to rethink. Or say Amazon’s ereader app for Blackberry was a very low priority but now B&N is suddenly offering an ereader for that platform. Again, it should prompt some positive movement.

A competitive threat doesn’t have to be perfect or massive to have an impact on the market leader. Netscape was a blip in the market but caused Microsoft to do all sorts of things, good and bad. I would argue Apple, despite its small market share, also has a large impact on Microsoft. And Amazon’s MP3 store, small but fast-growing, put pressure on Apple to cave to the music labels’ demands on pricing.

Finally, there’s some confusion about the competitive landscape and the best strategy for book publishers. If they want to avoid getting pushed around by Amazon in the ebook market, they should do what music publishers did and abandon Digital Rights Management, or DRM, software. That would make their digital products far more valuable and break the proprietary stranglehold of a popular device maker like Apple (in the iPod case) or Amazon (with the Kindle).

[This post started out as comments I made on the two above-mentioned blogs. I thank the two ladies for their stimulating posts.]

Barnes & Noble eBook Store Great News For Consumers

Book retailing titan Barnes & Noble has been building its electronic book sales effort this year with some haste, likely hoping to slow the growing momentum of Amazon’s Kindle before it becomes unstoppable. In March, Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise, maker of a popular ebook reader app for the iPhone and proprietor of several popular ebook stores online including Then, earlier this month, B&N slashed prices at the newly acquired ebook vendor. Now comes word in the Wall Street Journal that B&N has opened its own branded major online ebook store:

This is a fantastic development for people like me who like to read ebooks. I’m a big fan of my Kindle, as you may have heard. But I’ve also been alarmed by some of Amazon’s ham-handed moves in the ebook space, like the recent decision to reach onto customers’ devices and delete a validly purchased book (even if the book was posted improperly in the Kindle store). And I’ve expressed my concerns about ebook prices creeping higher in the Kindle store.

All this has gone on under the nose of Sony, which seems to present little real competition. It still has no wireless mobile play and prices in its ebook store are rarely competitive.

A strong move into the market by Barnes & Noble should force Amazon to do more to wow and delight its customers. And it may hasten the day when book publishers wake up and realize just how damaging it’s been for them to lock down all ebooks with cumbersome Digital Rights Management (or DRM) software.

I do think that the Barnes & Nobles ebook store starts out with a few important weaknesses. The company has no hardware reader and apparently won’t have one compatible with its format until the Plastic Logic ereader hits the market hopefully in early 2010. So for starters, its ebooks can be read only on mobile devices like the iPhone and Blackberry plus Mac and Windows computers. While there’s an argument to be made over whether dedicated ebook readers and their high-contrast, low-eyestrain screens will remain popular (as I think they will), there’s little doubt that people who own one are hardcore, frequent ebook buyers. Not reaching that group of shoppers will hurt.

Finally, initial selection and pricing may lag well behind Amazon’s Kindle store. Barnes & Noble says it will have 700,000 ebooks for sale but that includes 500,000 public domain books from Google and only 200,000 recent editions. And while it will copy Amazon’s $9.99 price point, that will only cover “hundreds of new release and bestsellers”  — a far cry from the thousands of ebooks priced under $10 at Amazon.

As a sidenote, the chatter among publishing industry types about ebook pricing continues to grow more frantic. I recently found myself asking skeptical questions in the comments of posts by publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin’s ruminations and Evan Schnittman, who works for Oxford University Press. I wonder what impact Barnes & Noble’s $9.99 pricing will have on the industry’s views?

Amazon really blowing it with Kindle DRM

The other day, I posted about some of the idiotic and inadequately disclosed limitations built into almost every electronic book sold by Amazon in their Kindle store. These limits, enforced by so-called Digital Rights Management, or DRM, software, can dramatically effect the way consumers view Kindle ebooks. And they make complete hash of the argument from publishers that ebook prices should be higher.

Today comes news of another deeply troubling Kindle “feature.” Apparently, a publisher agreed to sell Kindle versions of two George Orwell classics, 1984 and Animal Farm, but later decided to withdraw the ebooks. Amazon then went back into the Kindles of every customers who had purchased either of the volumes and DELETED THEM, while also refunding the purchase price and issuing a cryptic explanation. “We recently discovered a problem with a Kindle book that you have purchased,” Amazon told customers (Tip o’ the cap to New York Times tech columnist David Pogue for the link).

It’s one of the most egregious violations of consumer rights yet in the content industry’s DRM world. Even Apple, which used to lock up all the music in the iTunes store with DRM, never tried deleting music in a customer’s library after it was withdrawn by the record label from the store.

Not good! Bad! And now Amazon gets a hail of bad publicity and complaints, like these from David Pogue, Harry McCracken, Engadget and likely legions of others.

And of all books, 1984? It’s almost like an April Fool’s joke. We only wish.

p.s. the image above is for a different and slightly more expensive version of 1984 still available (at least of right now!) in the Kindle store.

UPDATE 7/18/09:

Now the Kindle deletion story has made the New York Times, where we learn that the “publisher” didn’t have the legal right to post the books and, more importantly, that Amazon’s Kindle terms of service do not allow Amazon to delete a book already purchased! Apparently, Amazon is promising not to do it again but I suspect they’ve done tremendous damage to their brand and created an opening for competitors to exploit.

Despite complaints and DRM, Kindle is a good value

scholjpgI’m starting to see signs that Amazon has successfully injected some major mojo behind its Kindle electronic book program. Dare we call them green shoots? This morning, publisher, blogger and Chris Anderson-fill-in Rex Hammock had a great post up about how his Kindle was aiding his effort to re-read David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest. I also came across a thought-provoking post about the Kindle by Kent Anderson over on the scholarly kitchen blog called “The Freedom of Not Owning Books.” Kent makes the argument that it’s worth buying a Kindle despite the DRM-imposed limits, pointing out the value of the wireless connection, the space saved by having virtual books, the ability to read and acquire new reading material on the go and so on. But he also crystallizes a more original factor at play:

Ownership isn’t a panacea, especially in an age of information abundance. Will I be concerned if the Kindle dies and books I’ve read on it become inaccessible on that platform? Not really. If I want to read them again, there will be plenty of alternative ways in the future. And my bookshelves long ago stopped being my collection of known facts and resources.

Joe Wikert points to a related post about how e-books still have room to evolve. I agree with the author’s points while noting that they’re already evolving in many ways. Two of my favorite old Sherlock Holmes collections are on my Kindle — for free. A copy of “Moby Dick” typeset especially for the Kindle also held sway for a while. From classics to current bestsellers, I can wirelessly get books for free and for less.

And I don’t have to own them.

It’s a fascinating point and one that is growing on me the more I ponder it. In fact, with Amazon keeping all my Kindle books alive in the cloud for instant access, I actually can go back and review a text from almost anywhere. A physical book sitting on a shelf at my house is out of reach if I’m not at home. And what about the Kindle’s indexing of every book you buy? It’s great that I own thousands of dead tree pulp books but if I can’t remember exactly which book contains the scrap of info I’m looking for, it can make for a long afternoon.

But, of course, this is the Internet so open the comments and queue the anti-Kindle-istas. In this case, the lead complainer was David Crotty, another member of the scholarly kitchen crew and the executive editor of an academic biology publication. Crotty wants to own his books, he doesn’t want any digital rights management software limiting what he does with his books and he is especially fearful that some day Amazon could take away his books.

I started arguing with Crotty in the comments but after a while, it started to feel disjointed. So, here’s why I agree with Kent: The Kindle is a good value if you are an avid reader, buy lots of new books and like to read when you’re on the go. It’s a good value despite the stupid DRM limitations, despite the fact that it costs hundreds of dollars and despite the fact that there’s a remote chance that Amazon will abandon it some day.

I do agree with Crotty that before you invest in any new technology, particularly one with a proprietary DRM involved, you need to make an assessment of the costs and benefits and the risks involved. Crotty cites examples like Microsoft killing its PlaysForSure music program or the defeat of HD-DVD at the hands of Blu-Ray as cautionary tales. One should wait until a DRM-free electronic book market opens before buying any ebooks, he argues. I guess that’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s not very far.

It’s obviously always better to buy without DRM but that’s not always an available choice. For example, see almost all major software programs with their horrendous activation schemes, current downloadable TV shows, movies, electronic books, downloadable video games, smart phone software etc. There is no way to buy electronic versions of current, popular books without DRM. There is no DRM-free substitute available. I wonder if Crotty buys any business software, video games or iPhone apps because they all have DRM? How long is he going to wait? In the meantime, the opportunity “cost” of not using software and playing games and using apps mounts. If anything software and computer game DRMs have been getting more annoying and restrictive over time, so he may be waiting forever.

Consider the PlaysForSure situation when Microsoft announced it back in 2004. The proper risk assessment strategy if you wanted current music back then was to go with the DRM that looked most likely to succeed. There wasn’t much DRM-free music at the time and CDs were priced well above the cost of digital albums (not to mention forcing you to buy 13 songs when you only wanted one). PlaysForSure was a steep, steep underdog to the already dominant iTunes/Apple DRM format. PFS was just one zig in Microsoft’s zigzagging, ever-changing, incoherent strategy that consistently failed to make any headway against Apple iTunes. It also only worked on a small subset of the total number of MP3 players out in the world (not ipods!). Buying into that DRM was a pretty obvious bad risk.

Not so for the Kindle today. Kindle is currently the dominant ebook format, Amazon is the leading ebook seller and the DRM works not just on the Kindle hardware but also on all iPhones and iPod Touches as well as more devices to come (Blackberry and Windows Mobile support coming soon, supposedly).

Right around here, Crotty turned to the last refuge of scoundrels in Kindle debates argument that despite all Amazon’s success it was just roadkill as soon as Apple decided to start selling ebooks in the iTunes store. I can’t face repeating all the reasons this Apple/ebook dominance meme is wrong so see my old blog post about why Apple won’t kill Amazon for more on that.

But Crotty does speculate that Apple would yank all competing ereaders from the app store — a new twist I hadn’t heard before. That seems far-fetched in the extreme. There’s no precedent for it, it wouldn’t pass antitrust scrutiny and it would infuriate literally millions of customers who have bought books in Scrollmotion, Kindle, eReader and other formats. Apple started out barring competing web browsers from the get-go — a far cry from banning an entire category of apps after they’ve already been available for a year. I have not heard of an example of Apple pulling an iPhone app because it launched its own version.

And after all of this, Crotty still has to assume that Amazon would kill the Kindle program in the face of tough competition from Apple. I just don’t see it. People buying a Kindle device now are already choosing to pay for something that they could do in part for free on an iPhone or iPod Touch. And still it’s selling out every few weeks and analysts are saying it’s a multi-billion dollar revenue stream for Amazon within three years.

So stick with it, Kindle fans, and don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.
(As an interesting aside, Kent’s post was sparked by Crotty’s post a day before pointing out two of the recently-discovered DRM limits in Kindle that I wrote about quite negatively on June 20. I guess Crotty and I agree that DRM stinks and that undisclosed DRM limits should be illegal but we differ on how much those problems diminish the value of the Kindle).

(As a second aside, Crotty is a fan of John Hodgman, so we also agree on the humourous side of life.)

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 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)