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Amazon's Kindle source code: Much ado about nothing

by Brett Smith Contributions Published on Nov 30, 2011 09:19 PM
This week there's been a lot of fuss about Amazon releasing source code for software on its Kindle devices, including the Kindle Fire. A lot of the hype we've seen is simply unwarranted; while you can download the source code that Amazon was legally required to publish, most of the software on the device remains proprietary, and every Kindle is still Defective by Design.

Much of the confusion apparently stems from the fact that the Kindle Fire's operating system is based on Android. Google releases Android source code to the public under the Apache License, a free software, non-copyleft license. Android devices for sale typically include some nonfree software as well, but this source code is enough to build a fully-featured free operating system. The Replicant project proves it, by building completely free systems for several different Android devices.

When Amazon released source code for the Android-based Kindle Fire, some writers apparently assumed the release would mirror what Google publishes. It does not. Amazon has only published source code for software under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and Lesser General Public License (LGPL). Both of these licenses require Amazon to make this source code available, as a condition of distributing covered software on the Kindle Fire. Amazon has merely met this particular legal obligation, and gone no further. None of the source code Amazon has released is unique to Android, and it certainly doesn't include any of Amazon's modifications to the Android user interface.

Releasing this minimal source code also leaves Amazon's Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) tightly intact. The proprietary software on Kindles still works to prevent people from copying or sharing the books and other media they buy. This source code might make it a little easier for enterprising hackers to install completely new software on the devices and opt out of the DRM entirely—but nobody should have to make such Herculean efforts just to exercise the kinds of rights they'd normally have with printed books. The better way to opt out of these draconian restrictions is to refuse to buy a Kindle at all. Everything we've said in the past about how Kindles are Defective by Design remains true today.

If Amazon really wants to make a splash, they should abandon their DRM and make all the software on the Kindle free software. That would let people use their devices and media as they see fit, and represent real change from the company. This source code release is nothing of the sort; it's merely routine legal compliance (the same thing they've been doing since they first released the Kindle), and not newsworthy.

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