-{Note: This post is based on the Kindles as I understand them. If you own a Kindle or have done research, please correct any misconceptions that I might have.}-

Kindles are one of those technologies that I’m keeping an eye on, though so far I am pretty far from sold. The biggest issue is that the costs of a Kindle ebook is not much cheaper than a regular book and more expensive than a used book. That, combined with the price of admission and one other thing, DRM, make it something I don’t want to own right now.

The DRM (Digital Rights Management) function is at present the biggest obstacle. Amazon has been accused of more-or-less bricking devices of people that have done it wrong. They turn off the ability to download stuff you’ve bought or to buy more stuff and your Kindle becomes near worthless. Some of the reasons that customers are alleging their devices were shut down were pretty weak such as “too many returned books”. I don’t know if that’s all that’s going on, but the mere fact that it could be is enough to scare me away. Simply put, I don’t want to buy a device that someone else can turn off. AT&T can shut down cell service on my smartphone, of course, but even then I would be left with a Pocket PC and I could unlock the phone and sign up with T-Mobile or some other SIM-card service. The Kindle is pretty closed hardware, it’s not really meant to be used without Amazon’s accompanying service, and there are no competitors that could activate it.

Amazon is, by its own rights, not selling books but selling a service. As such, they have the right to refuse service under various circumstances. That all sounds reasonable. Rhapsody, for instance, can stop its music service to my PC at any time and though I would lose my playlists and all that, but they would be in their rights to do so. So why shouldn’t Amazon be given the same rights? The main reason is that Rhapsody doesn’t charge anything analogous to the ownership rights to its music. If Rhapsody charged 50c or 75c per song, then I would have a strong claim of ownership over what I’ve purchased. But they charge a subscription fee and so they can more easily claim that they are offering a service. Amazon is not only charging per-book, but they’re charging prices that are not far off from what it would cost to own the book outright. In short, they’re offering purchase-prices for a rental agreement. Sure, the terms of the rental are pretty generous (you likely own it for as long as the service is available), but (provided reports are accurate) they’re retaining the right to deny you what you’ve paid for.

This all flies under the banner of their providing a service (and not a product) but also under DRM. Were it not for the latter, they would let you manage your own books that you could make as many backups as you needed and the Kindle would be sort of like the Pocket PC without the smartphone. You can’t necessarily use it for what you originally got it for, but you haven’t lost anything but future service. But Amazon feels, and rightly so, that if they gave the user too much ability to treat the books like files to be copied and backed up that blatant piracy would not be far behind. This would cost them their contracts with publishers. This was the same sort of idea behind early iTunes. They had to put these restrictions to get the content-providers to sign on and neither the service providers nor content providers trust users.

That’s all fair enough, if it weren’t for the fact that they’re demanding that we trust them. And I don’t. It’s no secret that in an ideal world for content-producers consumers would never own anything and would pay a small fee for every time that they listen to a song, watch a show, or read a book. It’s not even all that unreasonable to think that we should pay for a product in correspondence to how much we use it. But users don’t like that arrangement because we don’t want a meter running every time we listen to or watch something. There was a reason why the DVD succeeded where the (original) Divx failed. More than just not wanting to pay for a service, we don’t want to be dependent on anybody else to enjoy what we’ve purchased. We don’t want to have to rely that some server somewhere is going to be functioning properly, that our Internet connection won’t be down, and a whole bunch of other things. We want to put the disk in the player and watch or listen or whatever.

What DRM mostly comes down to is trust. Both sides of the transaction are understandably suspicious of one another. If the Kindle gave us books in the form of PDF files, they likely would be swapped around pretty freely. Of course, you can get PDF files of a whole lot of books illegally and free now, but right now there’s no really easy way to read them. Except the Kindle. So if they become too freewheeling with what the Kindle can read, they provide the seeds for people to bypass what they’re selling. But the more restrictions they place, the more we have to worry about whether or not we will have access to the material that we’ve bought. When it becomes easier to obtain and keep pirated material illegally than to do it legitimately, they’ve got a whole separate problem.

I don’t know what the solution to this problem is. Both sides can give credible reasons not to trust the other. But we’re sort of on the cusp on this great technology that will save bookshelves and trees across the country and the world. I hope it gets worked out somehow. Possibly it will entail some sort of actual subscription service and service rather than product rates. My guess is that, as with music, the consumers will eventually get what they want. Maybe not from the Kindle, but eventually some sort of device will make books and the like really easy to read and open enough that people won’t feel beholden to the manufacturer and service provider. The question is, when that day comes, will the pirates be so experienced trying to provide what Amazon and others wouldn’t that the content providers won’t get their share? It’s quite possible. The music and film/TV industries’ (understandable) mistrust of its consumers and (ridiculous) foot-dragging made them late-comers to the in the inevitable.


Category: Theater

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13 Responses to Kindling

  1. logtar says:

    My wife thought one would be cool, I am not a fan of DRM myself… this post def points the needle towards the not buy. I would not want something to get bricked just because.

  2. Peter says:

    A minor point, perhaps, but it irks me that Amazon did not include a wrist strap with the Kindle. It would be a very useful thing for a fragile device that’s often used in crowded public spaces and other locations where dropping is a risk.

  3. econoholic.com says:

    I feel similar to you, Trumwill. I’d like to see the device’s ownership structure separated from the content part. Right now you buy the Kindle from Amazon and it stays an Amazon sort of thing. I’ve been happy with Amazon for at least 10 years, but it’s still a lot to to put down on a device.

    What I’d like to see is a PC-like device (netbook?) that just happens to use the Kindle screen. I can buy books from anywhere, but I can also have a basic Office clone and access my basic internet applications with a browser that doesn’t suck. Oh, and it’s meant to be able to read PDFs without my having to do any converting. (I’d also like to buy books from anyplace.)

    I know this might cost $2000+, but I’d rather just spend that and get something with multiple uses that I can justify carrying around with me. The problem I see with this is mostly technical. I’m not sure any OS today is really usable without a color screen. Also, most web sites suffer from the same problem.

  4. Becky says:

    I hadn’t heard of these issues before, so thanks for posting about this. The price tag alone kept me from buying one, since I usually get books from the library, half priced books or friends.

  5. David Alexander says:

    Despite owning an iPod and carrying it with me nearly everywhere, I’ve yet to warm up to the idea of an electronic book. Somehow, there’s a part of me that feels that books belong in print and should be touched, and reading the print is an essential part of reading.

  6. web says:

    DRM – in all its forms – has been inherently about trying to strip away the rights of the consumer and destroy the time-honored “right of first sale” that we have (meaning, once you buy something, you can sell your item/copy to someone else).

    In fact, it’s been about trying to destroy the idea of “sale” entirely. Software “license agreements” (EULA) have been hit the same way – for instance, there was a big lawsuit a few years back about a company that bought Adobe’s bundles and then resold the individual parts. Adobe lost because a judge said the purchase, despite Adobe’s trying to insert pages of legalese, had all the trappings of a sale.

    This argument hasn’t changed over the years. There were book publishers trying to sue to destroy the public library system because they might “lose sales” a hundred years ago. There were lawsuits trying to stop the existence of consumer-recording devices for 8-track, normal audio tape, CD-R’s, DVD media, etc… it has gotten ridiculous.

    I have zero trust for any “content provider” these days. The record – trying to destroy consumer rights, framing people, destroying lives, and yes, in some cases deliberately trying to plant what amounted to time bombs in purchasers’ systems – says they can’t be trusted.

  7. trumwill says:

    Holic,

    You can now get ebooks for the iPhone, so you’re not entirely bound to Amazon’s hardware. But even there it’s Amazon that has the ability to block you from your purchases. The difficulty is that the only way that the publishers would sign on to this is if they can be assured that they won’t be infinitely copied. So it requires closed systems.

    I don’t think that the OS is actually that big of a problem. Give the Linux people a week and they will come up with something. Right now the issue, I think, is Amazon’s patent on the hardware. Of course nobody is going to challenge that patent and go to the trouble of coming up with an alternate device if they can’t get the publishers on board.

    Personally, I’m waiting for a color version that can read comic books. Bezos says that the color version is at least a few years off, though. I might revisit the issue then, though.

  8. trumwill says:

    David,

    I think that’s something that’s going to change in future generations. I’m personally at the point where I can read pretty easily on electronic devices. The biggest issue with non-Kindle devices is that you can’t read them very easily without relief from the sun.

  9. trumwill says:

    Web,

    On one side you have profit-maximizers who want to milk every last dime out of the consumer, don’t want to ever sell anything for permanent use and want to collect a toll every time someone wants to consume their material. You also have content-providers that don’t mind selling permanent consumption rights but want to make darn sure that they get paid by the people using (either first-hand or loaning out) their works.

    On the other side you have the people that won’t pay for anything ever unless they have to. They either philosophically believe that art should be free or they’re simply very thrifty. You also have consumers that want the ability to try something out before buying it and other consumers that refuse to pay for anything unless they get permanent consumption rights (ie people like Logtar and myself who are extremely reluctant to sign on to something with any sort of DRM).

    So there’s a tug of war. Without the first (pay-for-use) and third (everything-free) categories, it’s quite likely that the second, fourth, and fifth groups could strike up a relatively easy compromise. But it’s hard to give those three what they want without also giving the third what they want.

    To further complicate matters, the further the rope shifts from one side to the other, the more likely you are to produce people in the extreme categories. Once it’s established that consumers have no recourse to test-drive anything or keep multiple copies for safety sake, more and more of the content-providers will view the natural “next step” as content-leasing. Likewise, the more widely available free material is, more and more consumers will convince themselves that free is how it ought to be.

    So you’re right not to trust content providers. Give them complete gatekeeper rights to their product and they will abuse it. Let them content-lease and that’s precisely what they will do. But I also believe that they are right not to trust consumers. You may have a strong sense of honor, but a whole lot of consumers don’t and they will get used to the idea of free content and become extremely reluctant to pay for anything.

    That’s why this is, to me, a complicated issue. Despite their misbehavior, I don’t think that it’s purely an issue of greedy content-providers and victimized consumers. Nor is it purely an issue of content-stealers and poor, beleaguered providers.

  10. ecco says:

    I’d like to recommend the iPod touch as a viewing device. Although I haven’t purchased any ebooks from amazon, I do read a fair amount of documents on it, and for what it is it works well. The reading has included comic books as well which are fine with the color screen of the device. I think if the digital rights issues can be come to an acceptable truce the hardware is already here. Also, before somebody brings it up, it is frustrating that Apple puts so many restrictions on their devices. If they just opened it up a little more I think the ipod touch/iphone could be an even better platform. Nevertheless, even with the current limitations, it still works well.

  11. ecco says:

    Trumwill,
    I agree that the people who think all media/software should be free are just as bad as the content holders who want to oppress the public. However, right now the content holders have placed too many restrictions on their holdings. If I have to wait for a work for a significant period or its not available when the pirated version is, then I see little reason why one should uphold the rights of the content holder. I think the content holders by witholding their works are slowly transforming the majority in the middle who would make a compromise into freeists.

  12. trumwill says:

    I think the biggest problem with the iPod/iPhone is visibility in direct light. I read half an ebook on my old Pocket PC and it was a mixed bag. I really didn’t have a problem with the size and dimensions, but I did have to pay attention to where I sat in the coffee shop and stuff like that. That’s not ideal. I also have difficulty with comic books on my Pocket PCs and smartphones, although none is an iPod or iPhone. I can read it, but it’s not easy.

    The record industry did itself inestimable damage by believing that they could market to the consumer on their own terms. To some extent they are doing that now. When it’s not only cheaper, but easier to obtain and use an illegal copy… that’s a bad thing.

    At the same time, it’s hard for me to say that if I were in there shoes what precisely I would do differently. While I think that they need to take a relaxed attitude, I don’t know that I would place my career on the line in wager that consumers will respond with fairness in mind.

    Music has left the barn with the record labels having lost by being too stingy. Will the movie studios and book publishers follow suit? I’m not sure. Making matters even more complicated, the publishers and movie studios are holding very different hands. What works for one may not work for the other.

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