Friday, 26 October 2012

Don't let Amazon walk over you

DRM PNG 900 2

The matter of DRM in general and in its application to ebooks has been discussed over these pages before. Personally, I try and avoid the purchase of DRMed products to the best of my abilities, but some times avoiding them is just too hard. I manage myself without buying games from Sony’s PS3 store (games that are only playable on the specific console they were purchased on and under the specific user account they were purchased with, so if you move to New Zealand or your PS3 is broken – tough). However, I do buy iOS apps, read Amazon Kindle books and listen to Spotify.
This week, Amazon stood up to remind me exactly why I have a problem with their DRM. My biggest problem with the Kindle format is Amazon's ability to delete previous purchases off readers’ devices, an ability they exercised to remove copies of 1984 (!) from Kindles a few years ago. They said they won’t be doing it again, but guess what? They did: An Amazon user found her ebooks were deleted (read here). Her specific crime, in the eyes of that great Amazon eye in the sky, is unclear; however, it seems as if she bought ebooks she shouldn’t have been able to buy at her country using a fake address. For the record, I do so myself and quite often; looking over the Internet, it is fairly obvious this is quite common a habit, particularly with people living outside the USA.
The media started picking up on Amazon as a result, as it should, and a few days later Amazon climbed down the tree and reinstated the ebooks it took away. As this article summarizes quite well, the main lesson the whole affair served is to remind us that “our” Kindle books are not really ours; we might think we bought them, but in actual fact we only rent them, or more accurately license them for our personal use.

That’s great and all, but we don’t have to take this sitting down. There are several steps you can take to protect your collection of Kindle ebooks and prevent Amazon from being able to take them away.
The easiest thing to do is to download all your ebooks to your computer. It’s as easy as installing the Kindle application, offered by Amazon for free, on your Windows PC or Mac and downloading the ebooks. From that point onwards, you can keep your actual Kindle ebook reader offline and copy your books via a USB cable from your computer to your reader. You won’t be infringing any copyrights, laws or user agreements doing that.
The alternative is all conquering. You can download all your Kindle books and then remove their DRM (there are numerous ways of doing it; the easiest and the freest uses the Calibre software and some plugins, as explained here). Once you do this your ebooks are properly yours: no one can take them away from you anymore. Back them up and sleep tight! On the downside, while breaking down the DRM does not infringe on copyrights (unless you actively choose to share your ebook afterwards), you will be breaking user agreements and in some countries laws against tampering with DRM.
The matter at hand here, the legality of breaking DRM, is quite serious. Consider this: you bought an iPhone and wish to jailbreak it; why shouldn’t you? I understand special provisions in American law allow for just that, “just” being the key word here; you’re not allowed to break DRM on most other things, including things that are properly yours and you can resell. I consider that lunacy: why should anyone care to intervene with the way I privately use my own devices? It appears all is fair in that war against piracy that the contents industry is waging, including our basic human rights of possession. But because the contents industry is able to buy the laws it wants, this is the reality we are now facing.
Which brings me to my third and last suggestion for overriding Amazon’s Orwellian superpowers. Granted, Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader is a great device; however, no one is forcing you to feed it with books purchased at Amazon. There is nothing preventing you from shopping elsewhere and then uploading your ebooks to the Kindle, potentially with Amazon’s own help. Look out for non DRM sources: last week, for example, the oddly named Humble Bundle of ebooks proved a mega hit, selling a collection of 13 science fiction and comic ebooks for as much as you’re willing to pay – and without DRM. What more can we ask for? Obviously not that much; it is no coincidence the two week long idea earned $1.2M.
Eat your heart out, Amazon.

Image by listentomyvoice, Creative Commons license

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