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You are here: Home Bulletins Bulletins from 2009 Spring 2009 Defective by Design: Don't get swindled

Defective by Design: Don't get swindled

by root Contributions Published on Dec 18, 2009 01:48 PM
by John Sullivan, Operations Manager

Proprietary software and proprietary formats are vehicles for the exercise of power by some over others. Companies that claim ownership over the software and formats involved in the delivery of information become gatekeepers determining who can and cannot access that information. The point isn't whether the people who claim such power -- and are granted it by our legal system -- use it for good or bad. The point is that they shouldn't have it at all. But as it turns out anyway, they generally use it for bad.

The Amazon Kindle (more appropriately known as the "Swindle"), which uses proprietary software to distribute ebooks in proprietary formats within a Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) scheme, is an example of a company claiming and being granted power they shouldn't have over books and the terms under which we can access them.

Amazon's speedy move to shut off the Kindle's text-to-speech (TTS) capabilities in response to complaints by the Authors Guild was a clear demonstration of this power. Authors Guild president Roy Blount, Jr. borrowed our "Kindle Swindle" monicker as the headline for his New York Times op-ed piece complaining that the TTS feature infringed on authors' rights. Amazon twiddled some bits and suddenly all Kindles refused to read certain titles aloud. It's still a mystery why a computerized voice reading a book aloud to you in your home is infringement on any author's right -- but in this case, it's Amazon's secret software that makes the law.

This action sparked a backlash that is still gaining momentum. Blind people have been protesting in large numbers, because the TTS feature is incredibly useful to them. Their point is powerful -- taking it further, we should not be content with case-specific exemptions. The problem isn't that Amazon and the publishers don't use the power properly, it's that they have it at all. In this case, they used it in a manner that disproportionately impacted blind users, and that was wrong. But if they retain the power, they will be able to use it later against someone else.

This has not been the only such instance. Earlier this year, DefectiveByDesign supporters sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos jars of peach baby food -- a reference to an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is banned from his favorite fruit market for attempting to return a peach -- to call attention to Amazon's ban of a user for returning too many Amazon purchases; a ban which prevented the user not only from purchasing any ebooks for his Kindle but also from accessing ebooks he had already purchased. Though the ban was rescinded after the outcry, the leopard had shown its spots.

Amazon spokeswoman Cinthia Portugal told Wired that "Amazon is agnostic when it comes to DRM with ebooks," and that they "give content owners the choice." While Amazon has been a positive force in the world of DRM-free music, they are anything but a neutral party in the ebook world. They control the format, the device, and the store where the media for the device is purchased. If all they wanted to do was "give content owners the choice," then why did they send a DMCA takedown notice to a site hosting a tool which facilitated loading books from other companies onto the Kindle?

Statements like Portugal's show Amazon's strategy: Don't look behind the curtain. Trying to get an exact description of what the DRM on the Kindle does is impossible. DRM is not even mentioned much less explained -- outside of user-contributed reviews -- on the purchase page for the Kindle. And yet, while the Kindle already does support some DRM-free formats, access to the restricted Kindle store is the feature being marketed most heavily by Amazon.

Whatever happens with the Kindle, we need to work to eliminate DRM on all ebooks. Here are some things you can do to protest these restrictions and promote DRM-free ebooks:

Don't get swindled. Other portable devices can both run free software and read DRM-free ebooks. FBReader is free software that runs on Android mobile devices, the OpenMoko FreeRunner, and other systems running GNU/Linux. The Bebook e-ink device publishes their reader software as free software under the GNU General Public License (GPL). As of this writing, the Bebook still includes a proprietary module for DRM support, but maybe if enough people request it, they will offer a completely DRM-free version.

Support authors who offer their ebooks without DRM. Creative Commons licenses sensibly prohibit DRM, so look for books under licenses like CC-BY-ND, CC-BY and CC-BY-SA. Another group of authors is working to tag all of their own DRM-free ebooks with "drmfree" on Amazon. You can help by supporting their work and by helping in the tagging effort.

Insist that Amazon start being honest about their DRM. Write to Amazon asking them to answer author Cory Doctorow's questions about DRM -- and publish your letter online. If Amazon is just doing what the authors want, then why aren't they answering him?

Hand out copies of "The Right to Read". Richard Stallman's short story illustrates the kind of world we can expect if we buy into proprietary devices, proprietary formats, and DRM for our ebooks.

Review Amazon on Amazon. This worked to call attention to DRM on video games, when many people reviewed Spore negatively for its DRM. The same can be done with the Kindle. Take a few minutes to write your own review of the Kindle, emphasizing the problems with DRM.

Review the Reviewers. Write to tech reviewers and point out that they failed to mention the Kindle or other device's DRM restrictions in their review. Some reviewers wield a lot of influence -- people like David Pogue of the New York Times. It's mystifying that they exclude such an important misfeature when they review devices in this genre.

Please do write to us at about anything you do to protest ebook DRM, and use the LibrePlanet wiki at to share the texts and reading lists you've created. Together we can achieve the same in the arena of ebooks that we have achieved in music -- a widespread recognition that people will no longer tolerate DRM.

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