DRM and Kindle: An Old Debate Reexamined

In this article: Kindle e-reader: A Trojan horse for free thought, Professor Emily Walshe raises some points that I discuss. Generally I’d post a comment on the article, but the CS Monitor doesn’t allow for commenting, something they should really think about on techie articles like this. So I’m writing my thoughts here.

To start with, even though a Kindle supports DRM, it doesn’t force it. The kindle supports a number of different open formats either directly or through simple conversion tools.

The article states:

You can download only from Amazon’s store, making it difficult to read anything that is not routed through Amazon first

I fear that Prof Walshe is misinformed. One example of a place to get books that don’t run through the Amazon store is Feedbooks, a source for Project Gutenberg and creative commons released books. They have a simple guide describing how to easily get there books on the Kindle.

Also a number of publishers that make their books available in PDF. A few of them will convert them into kindle format if you ask, I know that Packt Publishing makes kindle versions of their book when asked. If not there are several free tools that will convert that PDFs into kindle format (or at least mobi/ prc which is kindle compatible). Getting those books onto your kindle is easy, attach to USB, drag and drop. If you can get photos off your digital camera, you can get put data onto your kindle. Amazon will also convert the files for free via their email service. Over 90% of the books on my Kindle are DRM free. I have exactly 4 DRMed books from the Amazon store and considerably more from open sources.

It’s funny that Prof. Walshe ties this to the first amendment, because try as I might I don’t see this as a censorship issue. Actually, I feel quite the opposite. Through the internet and simple tools, anyone can publish their book, and send it to anyone who wants it. No publisher deciding what’s marketable or not. The author has the choice to publishing the book on the Amazon Store with DRM or off their website without and that book can have equal standing the other books in my Kindle.

I really suspect that the cycle we saw with digital music will repeat here with books :

  1. Publishers force anyone who wants to use their content to use DRM. This will annoy customers but old media executives will feel safer, and say they are protecting their authors.
  2. Independent authors, trying to cut out the middle man, will make DRM-Free Kindle Version of their books available, either out of a moral obligation or rather smart marketing.
  3. A few major authors will start making their books available DRM-Free to appeal to their audiences.
  4. Publishers, realizing they are losing grip on their authors will go DRM-Free for all their content. If they fear Amazon they will start with another platform first (maybe Sony), but eventually all this content will be available DRM-Free.

Earlier today I said to a friend that this process will take 5 years. It might be faster because there is a more established catalogue of legal, freely available books through both the public domain and the creative commons. There’s also a large community of writers who publish their work on the internet who care more about being read then they do about making money on their writing.

Like the music industry there will be back and forth. There will be battles over removing the DRM and lawsuits will be filed. Who owns bits will be heavily debated, but at the end of the day, until the publishers the publishers feel comfortable they will insist on the DRM. Some day, they will realize that it makes more financial sense not to use DRM but to open things up.

As it says in the Book of Pythia, “All this has happened before, all this will happen again”.