Friday, November 30, 2007

DRM and the Kindle

One of the most contentious aspects of Amazon's new Kindle e-reader is that it will not allow users to read copy-protected (also referred to as 'DRM' or digital rights management, a fancier way of saying the same thing) eBooks from sources other than Amazon. This seems like a really bad idea, but maybe it's necessary.

First, a little history. The .MOBI eBook format, the most popular eBook format prior to the Kindle's introduction, was developed by a company called MobiPocket for use by their MobiReader software. MobiPocket used to charge a nominal fee for the MobiReader application, and another nominal fee for popular public domain eBooks like the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, etc. The appeal of this, a decade ago, is that one could read books on various PDAs and computers. MobiPocket ended up being the largest publisher of eBooks, and was able to entice mainstream publishers to get on board by offering them protection against unauthorized copying, via DRM. MobiPocket also made their eBook creation software available for free to prospective publishers, so it costs almost nothing to create an eBook from the textual source. MobiPocket (the company) was purchased by Amazon a few years ago, by the way.

After thinking about this on and off, I now understand why Amazon decided not to support DRM .MOBI and went with a new DRM format, .AZW. (Interestingly enough, .AZW is almost identical to DRM .MOBI, and why not? After all, Amazon owns DRM .MOBI.)

Current DRM schemes do not account for selling and transferring ebooks. In fact, since it is impossible to tie a DRM .MOBI ebook to a particular reader (because users might get a new reader), it is effectively impossible to enforce DRM if the original purchaser is willing to provide the key to another person.

The Kindle, on the other hand, is a closed system. The Kindle's serial # is tied to the user on the Amazon website. Although, like MobiPocket, creating eBooks costs nothing, unlike MobiPocket the creation software is not downloaded to one's computer but instead resides on Amazon's servers (so they can control it fully). A record of all DRM ebooks purchased is also stored on Amazon, and associated with both the customer and the specific Kindle. Amazon could institute a firmware feature that would automatically verify each DRM ebook on the system with Amazon's server on a regular basis, and inform Amazon if a pirated file were found. Maybe they're doing that now. Who knows what data goes up to Amazon?

However, a closed system has advantages. Amazon could institute an ebook trade-in program, where you get partial credit for 'returning' a book to Amazon (removing it from your purchased book list), and they could enforce this by having the Kindle verify the 'ownership' of any .AZW book when you try to read it (by storing a copy of your purchased book list on your Kindle). Or, Amazon could facilitate 'selling' of used ebooks to other Kindle owners, by taking a bite of the 'selling' price for themselves and the publisher... call this the eBay model. The Kindle would certainly support this.

So, because Amazon can't guarantee that an individual is the owner of a particular DRM .MOBI ebook, it is perfectly understandable why they don't want the hassle and liability of supporting that format. And, because they control the Kindle, they could have all sorts of flexibility with .AZW ebooks... flexibility that is impossible with DRM .MOBI ebooks.

P.S.: Why have I written a lot about this device? Because I believe the Kindle will revolutionize the book industry, and it will also transform Amazon, the company, into what it originally promised to be back in 1995. Stay tuned for further thoughts on this device...

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