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This is why I didn't buy a Kindle

July 24th, 2009 (06:38 pm)
current location: Train

As you may have read, last week Amazon unsold some books. A third party had uploaded two books and started selling them without the copyright holder's permission. When the copyright holder complained, Amazon deleted the books from the customers' accounts...including from the Kindles themselves.

(This isn't the first time; the only reason it got more attention this time is that the books were 1984 and Animal Farm, which made a better story.)

Now, Amazon has said they wouldn't do it any more; Jeff Bezos has apologized, and said it was stupid. But I'm not actually sure they have any choice. Under the DMCA, if a copyright holder finds an unlicensed copy of their work online, they can send the Web site in question a takedown notice, and the site has to delete the work. (Unless the user who put it up there contests the notice, that is. Then the copyright holder has to go to court as usual.) IANAL, but I've just reread that part of the DMCA, and it applies to anybody who's storing material "at the direction of a user [...] that resides on a system or network controlled or operated by or for the service provider".

So, clearly, given a DMCA notice, Amazon would have to remove the books from their own machines, meaning that Kindles would no longer be able to redownload them. The interesting question is, is a Kindle "controlled or operated by" Amazon? I would bet that a publisher could make a good case in court that it is—since Amazon has complete control over what you have on your Kindle. If the court agreed, then Amazon would have to delete unlicensed books, or else be liable for infringement.

So that's why, when I bought an ebook reader a few months back, it was a Sony. It's got no wireless, so nobody can reach into it and take away my books. It supports ePub, which is an open standard for ebooks: HTML, plus images and stuff, bundled up in a zipfile with some control information (e.g., table of contents). It can also display PDF natively (no emailing it to my Kindle and paying Amazon to convert it). Sony does have a bookstore (via their Windows-only desktop software), but you're not locked into using it; the Reader supports Adobe's DRM, too, both for PDF and for ePub, and lots of ebook stores will sell you books with Adobe DRM. For that you need Adobe's software; but the good news there is that it's available for Mac, too. (Not Linux, though. Shocked.)

But I've never bought any DRMed books, and I doubt I ever will. I get DRM-free books, mostly ePub, from Baen, or Fictionwise, or Project Gutenberg, or O'Reilly, or the ACM Digital Library. Or I can convert almost any Web page into ePub and put it on my Reader. The open source software I use to manage my ebooks includes an RSS client; I've got it scheduled to pull the BBC, the Economist, Scientific American, and a few others.

And none of it can be taken away from me if the site I got it from decides they made a mistake.

DRM: a booted foot stomping on an unprotected screen, forever.

Comments

Posted by: tasha (tashabear)
Posted at: July 24th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC)

Here's the thing, though: If the owners of those Kindles had backed their books up to their computers, which is trivially easy (and owners of first gen Kindles can back up to a memory card), then they'd still have those books, which is a big old thumb of the nose to Amazon and their Big Brother tactics.

I should charge mine up and do that very thing -- I'm afraid I haven't used it much since they came out with the Kindle app for iPhone and iPod Touch.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: July 25th, 2009 06:53 am (UTC)

I'm not sure that is necessarily true.

The software giveth, and the software can taketh away. If the only way to read those books (backed up as they are) is with a Kindle, then the Kindle can make those backups ineffective.

It's like some of my old mag tapes - with nothing to read them, they are curiosities.

Posted by: tasha (tashabear)
Posted at: July 25th, 2009 06:58 am (UTC)

I don't think you're correct, but I have no way to prove it.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: July 25th, 2009 07:01 am (UTC)

I cannot prove it either.

But, I can say this much: if I was part of a design and implementation team that wrote software, and that software permitted unselling books, I'd have worked to ensure that the unsell feature was effective against saved copies as well. If the backed-up book was not in a DRM format, it can be read in other ways.

But if it is protected by DRM, then likely the only way to read it is via Kindle, and I'm sure their software staff is as good at their jobs as I am. If not, I am available to consult. :-)

Posted by: tasha (tashabear)
Posted at: July 25th, 2009 07:08 am (UTC)

You give them too much credit.

This is not "unselling". This is abuse of the Whispernet system. What *I* think happened was that the book was removed from the owner's digital library, so that when the Kindle was next synced, the book was not there. I highly doubt that there is anything in place to block the reinstallation of the book from backup.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: July 25th, 2009 07:18 am (UTC)

I think you just paid me a compliment. :-)

I can see several additional mechanisms that might still permit subsequent removal.

Think of the deletion as a command, sent from the central system. This command was, it seems, stored in the Kindle and acted upon when the synchronization took place. So, commands are stored. It is quite possible that the same mechanism that allows books to be stored and retrieved, allows the synched computer to store the deletion command, and review and activate it every time.

It is also the case that, in the case of DRM, it seems likely that dynamic checks are done whenever an e-book is read, wirelessly or via wired Internet during synchronization. At that time, the command could be re-sent, not just to refuse the unpacking of the encrypted book, but to delete it. It's possible that both the Kindle and/or the backup computer keep a hashed list of every title, which are constantly checked against the "mother ship's list of allowed books". I can see several unrelated reasons why Amazon might consider that a positive feature.

Those cases are why I am speculating as I did. This command likely has staying power, and can be retransmitted. All of this is true if the book is not DRM protected, but the checking in real time is less necessary.

If I had been part of the team, I would have set things up so that you can still read DRM material, even if there is no available Internet connection (so you can read DRM protected books while sitting in the wilderness far from home), but I'd still queue up a request to check again, later.

So: if the system works as I think it might, the only protection for reading that book would be: 1, if the book is not under DRM and the back up is transferred to another e-book system before deletion or 2 both the Kindle and the computer where the backup is stored never use the Internet again. In that case, the value of the Kindle has sharply degraded.

Posted by: tasha (tashabear)
Posted at: July 25th, 2009 08:18 am (UTC)

I see the disconnect. You don't know how a Kindle works.

You're assuming that the deletion was Kindle-side; that a command was sent *to the Kindle* to delete the book. That is not the case. A Kindle's wireless system has an on-off switch. It only syncs when you turn that switch on and it auto-syncs with the Amazon server. It is entirely possible that there are people who still have those books on their devices because they haven't turned the wireless on in weeks.

I would have set things up so that you can still read DRM material, even if there is no available Internet connection (so you can read DRM protected books while sitting in the wilderness far from home), but I'd still queue up a request to check again, later.

You mean, you would have programmed it so it works the way it works now?

There doesn't have to be an Internet connection to download books or for the Kindle to sync; it's done via Sprint's Whispernet. That's (IMO) the beauty of Kindle. I can buy books from Amazon anywhere in the lower 48 that has Sprint coverage, *and* I can read books from all the sources metageek described.

If said books are backed up on, say, my laptop, Amazon can't touch them, and while yes, they would continue to be deleted every time I synced with Amazon via Whispernet, I could always just reload them from backup. Tedious, but doable.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: July 27th, 2009 01:46 am (UTC)

You can't assume that sync is the only feature of the protocol. It is entirely possible that the "we shouldn't have sold this" feature sends the Kindle a revocation message, which tells it that DRM key such-and-so is now invalid.

Posted by: tasha (tashabear)
Posted at: July 27th, 2009 02:23 am (UTC)

Perhaps, but as I said, I can't prove it.

Everything else I said about how Kindles sync is absolutely valid, and the info is available on their website. I knew it before I ordered mine, and I was a first wave early adopter.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 4th, 2009 08:15 pm (UTC)

I have researched your claims.

Sorry to tell you - but you seem to be completely wrong, including and especially in thinking that WhisperNet (which is just the Sprint Network under a different name) is not the exact equivalent of Internet access as far as the Kindle is concerned.

The Kindle only displays books that are encrypted under a proprietary encryption format, and it can and does withdraw the rights to read that data at any time. Each book has a unique key that can be voided. If the Kindle is not on WhisperNet and not docked with a computer with an Internet connection, the book would be available.

Once either of those conditions are met (such as when backing up the Kindle, or browsing for new books, or downloading them) the book would be deleted.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: August 4th, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)

You, and John, might appreciate reading this subjective and negative review of the Kindle in The New Yorker.

There are certainly places where the reviewer is just being snotty. But there are also some very solid points made against the Kindle 2 device itself and some references to other e-book readers.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: July 26th, 2009 07:17 pm (UTC)
Re: There are costs to adopting "the other one"

The Kindle is not the definitive front-runner yet. They've probably sold more readers, but Sony's not exactly a lightweight. Sony has better build quality, more experience, more features (PDF, MP3, touchscreen), and more titles. (Their deal with Google Books gives them about half a million; Project Gutenberg, with their ePub support, adds another 30,000.)

And, really, this market is just getting started. In 10 years, the Kindle could be utterly dominant, or it could be a footnote. Mistakes like last week's could push them towards "footnote".

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: July 27th, 2009 01:31 am (UTC)
Re: There are costs to adopting "the other one"

I thought that Google was financially sponsoring Project Gutenburg.

Not that I know of.

Why is there something called Google Books?

Google Books is made of books that Google scanned from a bunch of university libraries. It includes a bunch of stuff that's still in copyright, which Project Gutenberg can't do.

Posted by: tasha (tashabear)
Posted at: July 27th, 2009 02:24 am (UTC)
Re: There are costs to adopting "the other one"

(PDF, MP3, touchscreen)


Kindle has two of the three, and has always had MP3 support.

(Yes, I drank the Kool-Aid. The tasty, tasty Kool-Aid.)

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: July 27th, 2009 01:13 pm (UTC)
Re: There are costs to adopting "the other one"

The Sony can handle PDFs natively; you don't have to get Amazon to convert them.

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