Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Is the Kindle a danger to ownership?

This article from The Christian Science Monitor by librarian and professor Emily Walshe asks that question, and her answer is a resounding YES. When you use a Kindle, you don’t buy ebooks – or, rather, you don’t actually own what you’ve paid for.

When you buy a book in a store, you aren’t required to buy a pair of secret decoder glasses to read the text. This, in essence, is what the Kindle requires you to do. You cannot read Kindle books without a Kindle (or Kindle app on your iPhone). You can't read it on a Sony Reader, or BeBook, or your color Fujitsu reader, or even your computer. You cannot share your Kindle book with anyone who does not share your Amazon account (and even then, you’re limited as to the number of people who can connect to the account). If Amazon ceases to exist and your Kindle dies, you have no way of re-downloading the books.

This isn’t good business. Artists’ rights need to be protected, yes. We don’t want anyone to lose money. We’re agents – we only make money when our clients make money. But, if the music industry taught us anything, it’s that consumers will get media in whatever way they please. They don’t seem to care if the way they get it is legal or illegal, they want what’s easy. Being able to read your book on only a proprietary device is not easy. How can those of us in the publishing industry make it easier for consumers to get what they want while also giving them the ownership they deserve?

What I think we need is one agreed-upon, platform-agnostic, DRM-free ebook format. A format that can be used on any computer, on any reader, on any phone, etc. It would certainly save publishers and ebooksellers the headache of converting files from one format to the other in order to preserve the correct formatting of the text. And, despite what many other believe, I don’t think this will lead to more pirating. If someone wants to steal something, they’ll steal it. And you can already find plenty of supposedly DRM-locked books available for free online. For the consumer, getting rid of DRM will mean full ownership and less hassle – a scenario that will make them more likely to actually purchase the book.

The digital revolution is happening all around us, and authors, agents, publishers and booksellers all need to wake up to it. Instead of burying our heads in the sand, let’s follow the lead of publishers like Nelson, whose NelsonFree program provides a free ebook (and audio) download with a hardcover purchase (selling content, not format!). Let’s pay attention to forward-thinkers like Kassia Krozser at Booksquare and Michael Cairns at PersonaNonData. Let’s not get caught up in issues like text-to-speech, the prevention of which actually requires DRM on the Kindle titles. And, most importantly, let’s keep this conversation going.



  1. I do agree that the industry could stand to look in a few new directions. Yeah, I think it would be great to see the availability of more combo-pack type books, where not only do I get the physical copy but I also get a PDF or some other digital version. The computer book industry has been doing this for years, and I'd love to see it pick up in other places.

    I think about the loss of ownership of physical copies of books and I think ... so what?

    I do appreciate the whole "then they took away my gun" principle of the thing, but in reality, frankly, I'm not concerned with not owning a physical copy. Yeah DRM is a bummer, and yeah I would like to have access to it in perpetuity, but truly ... do I really need to hang on to all of the trashy $6 SF books I have? I'm very willing to pay another $6 to read it again in 5 years and not have to lug it around with me when I move.

    It'd certainly be grounds for divorce, or a bloody murder trial, if I could manage to swap all of my wife's bookshelves for a single Kindle -- so I do get the argument. But I wanted to assert that there people out there like me that ownership of the book isn't the issue.

  2. I'm glad we agree on this, Michael. The DRM era in digital music was a disaster for publishers and an annoyance to fans. Do we really have to go through the whole thing again with ebooks? I guess we do.

    How do libraries fit in, though? I'd like to be able to "borrow" DRM-free ebooks from my library, but they have no way of making me return them, so why would I bother?

    I see a compulsory licensing scheme in our future, frankly.

  3. The person who buys a paper book doesn't own the copyrighted material, he owns the paper. He can do what he dang well pleases with the paper including reselling it, but he can't do anything with the content including copying it and posting it online, reading it aloud for profit, etc.

    According to every lawyer I've read on the subject, an ebook is essentially the copyright material so it can't legally be resold or copied.

    The problem with books set up for the Kindle isn't DRM but the format. A Kindle ebook is written in Kindle code, and no other ebook hardware can read it unless it has Kindle ebook software.

    Amazon has just introduced a Kindle format reader for the iPhone, and Kindle readers of other kinds are promised.

    Within a few years, the Kindle format reader will be on most phones, PDAs, and computers.

    Like all computer software, media, and hardware, the current Kindle format will be obsolete one day, and that may prove a problem for book storage, but most people will just buy a different format of the book as they have bought digital copies of albums to replace their vinyl, tape, and CD albums.

  4. Walshe wrote in her article:

    "Print may be dying, but the idea of print would be the more critical demise: the idea that there needs to be a record – an artifact of permanence, residence, and posterity – that is independent of some well-appointed thingamajig in order to be seen, touched, understood, or wholly possessed ...

    "Access equals control. In this case, it is control over what is read and what is not; what is referenced and what is overlooked; what is retained and what is deleted; what is and what seems to be."

    I'm all for technology, but I worry about 1) historical and cultural information that has been digitized and is not being preserved or archived properly, and 2) the increasing divide between those who have access to digital information and those who don’t.

    More newspapers are shifting to Web-only formats and, if trends continue, more novels will require the reader to own an expensive electronic device. Let’s not forget that there are still people in this world who may never be able to own a Kindle. They barely earn enough to provide food and medicine for their kids. We mustn’t alienate those who lack the finances to acquire, or the education needed to understand, these technologies.

    This is why public libraries – and the paper and ink books, magazines and newspapers – are so vital. They are archives of history and culture. They provide free print and digital access, information, education and entertainment to everyone.

    It’s interesting, by the way, that Walshe’s article appears in a publication that no longer issues a print edition.

  5. This clarifies the next-to-last paragraph of my previous post:

    "This is why public libraries – and the paper and ink books, magazines and newspapers that fill the shelves – are so vital. They are archives of history and culture. Public libraries provide free print and digital access, information, education and entertainment to everyone."

    Sorry about that. I forgot to put on my editor glasses when I wrote the earlier post, and I can't stand to let those errors go uncorrected. :)

  6. Thanks for all of the comments.

    Rick: I'd be pretty upset, no matter what I paid, if I had to buy an ebook a second time because Amazon quit supporting the format. That could easily be hundreds or thousands of dollars wasted.

    Matthew: Glad we agree, too! And, my clients should know, I will support whatever decisions they personally make about DRM.

    Marilynn: I really don't think I should have to pay for books twice, and you can transfer even vinyl to MP3 (it's not even THAT hard). And, frankly, I don't want Amazon controlling the marketplace for ebooks, so I don't Kindle readers everywhere, I want one format that can be read by any standard reader.

    Patricia: All good points. The divide between digital have and have nots is a big issue, and I'm glad that President Obama discussed this issue in his campaign platform. It's important that libraries continue to provide free access to these materials, and I hope that we'll soon see digital readers that are affordable for all.


  7. Data loss -- and the inability to translate older forms of data -- is also a concern as the digital transition accelerates. This article is from 2006, but it's still relevant:

    As for any books vs Kindle debate, I have to admit I'm partial to print. I love the familiarity and feel of my well-worn, marked-up, dog-eared books with highlighted text and notes scribbled in the margins. Though I adore my laptop, I don't get warm fuzzies from it like I do when I pick up my favorite books.

  8. Couple other notes. First, the standard DRM-free format you're looking for already exists and it's called ePub.

    Second, in case the appeal of ebooks hadn't already cemented itself for me, it was brought home last night as I was packing for a trip. I'm in the middle of Anthony Lukas's Common Ground, and I have a four-hour train ride today. Unfortunately, the book is huge and weighs three pounds, and I don't have room to pack it. Of course, there's no Kindle edition and I don't have a Kindle, but right now I'm wishing for both.

  9. Good point about packing books for travel, mamster, and thanks for the link.

    If I traveled more, I'd probably be craving a Kindle or some sort of e-book reader more than I do now.

    I like that Thomas Nelson plans to bundle the audio and e-book with the print version in one purchase. (Disney's kind of doing the same thing by issuing new blu-ray recordings with a bonus standard dvd.) If more publishers did this, I'd be more likely to give e-books a try.

  10. Do you have a Kindle? Because actually, you CAN download the books you get to your Kindle as ebooks. You CAN read them on the computer. Amazon keeps the data for you in your account, so if it is ever lost or broken and needs to be replaced, you can resend the book free of charge. In fact, if I delete something on a whim and decide I want it back, I can send it again. Doesn't that make it mine? I think so.

    Who researched this?

    As far as reading Kindle books on another ereader, well, if anyone has tried to put an mp3 from itunes onto a Dell Jukebox (it's like an ipod but isn't) you'll know itunes doesn't allow it. Apple only allows certain mp3 players to access itunes. There are ways around it - but this is nothing new in the digital world.

  11. Hi, Anonymous -

    I understand that Amazon backs up your purchase, but my question is what happens when they decide to stop or go out of business? And, how do you get Kindle files onto a computer? I can't find documentation for this. Always willing to admit when I'm wrong!

    "In fact, if I delete something on a whim and decide I want it back, I can send it again. Doesn't that make it mine? I think so." I disagree. Again, if Amazon doesn't exist, you won't be able to do that.

    As for Apple, they've actually dropped DRM, and you can now take their MP3 files and use them as you like (though you need to pay to convert your old files to the DRM-less format). You still can't manage another player through iTunes, but you can move the files wherever you'd like.


  12. Thanks, I actually wasn't aware about the changes with itunes, and I'm glad to be informed, too!

    If you go in to "manage your kindle" and down to "Your orders and individual charges," it lists the books and subscriptions you've purchased. It offers the option in a drop down menu that says "Download/send to" and the options are "computer" or "Kindle." I'm trying to take a screen shot but I don't really know how to send it to you so maybe someone else with a Kindle can confirm?

    I'm sorry, though, if my earlier comment came off as rude at all. I simply want to play a bit of devil's advocate, and I think it's very important to keep up conversations like this! That's why this is a great (and very helpful!) blog.

    I bet these things will get ironed out, just as they seem to be changing and improving with ipods and mp3 players. That's why it's important to bring up these issues, definitely.

  13. Anonymous,

    I'll have to look into this computer issue. I don't have a Kindle (I use the Sony at the moment), though to complicate everything, can I admit that I'd like a Kindle 2?

    I'm not so sure these things will be ironed out if people aren't proactive about it -- or at least discussing it! I appreciate your comments.


  14. Great post, Michael. Thanks for keeping us up to date on these issues.

    In follow up to Patricia's comments, I posted recently on the relationship between the DRM world of publishing and the rapidly disintegrating (print)newspaper industry:

    (sorry, don't know how to do the tiny url thing quite yet)

    Great dialog from all!

  15. Thanks for the link, kimmelin. I've been following these newspaper closings with great interest.

    To create a tiny url of a page that has a long url, copy the url, then in a new window or tab go to:

    Paste the long url into the box on the page and click the appropriate button. It creates the tiny url for you. You may then copy and paste it as needed.

    It's handy to save the tinyurl website in your favorites. If you do a search for it, be careful where you click. I did that once and ended up on a malicious Web page.

    Hope this is helpful!

  16. Thanks for the lesson on how to create a tiny url ! You learn something new every day...