1984 goes down the Memory Hole

I’ll be blog­ging about the great time I had at ARGfest soon, but this par­tic­u­lar bit of news was just too laced with irony to pass up...

I do not know if you have read the biggest piece of irony in recent (or per­haps ever) tech news but in case you have not, let me sum­ma­rize. The Amazon Kindle is, arguably, one of the most pop­u­lar ebook read­ers out there. Ebooks may not be for every­body, and even for the peo­ple who embrace them, they may not be for all books (I myself think they are great for tech books/paper, pulpy nov­els, and timely things like news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, but would not buy some­thing last­ing), but they’re here. They’re prob­a­bly here to stay. The com­pelling fea­ture of Amazon’s Kindle is its abil­ity to buy and down­load books on the go. Each Kindle has what is effec­tively a lit­tle cell­phone inside. Each Kindle has free wire­less data ser­vice. This means that from vir­tu­ally any­where (in the US with cell­phone recep­tion) you can instantly pur­chase and down­load a book.

Up until now, every­one had assumed that cell­phone con­nec­tion was (more-or-less) one way, with all com­mu­ni­ca­tions being sourced from the Kindle. You use it to browse books, down­load them. When you read a book, the last page you were sit­ting on gets uploaded by the Kindle (so that if you have mul­ti­ple Kindles or a Kindle and and iPhone, it remem­bers your place.) Every night in the wee hours, your news­pa­per sub­scrip­tions get “pushed” to your Kindle, but my under­stand­ing is that it is less of Amazon push­ing it to your Kindle and more like your Kindle occa­sion­ally ask­ing “is there any­thing new for me to down­load?”

Given this, imag­ine everyone’s sur­prise when the fol­low­ing sce­nario occurs. People pur­chased Orwell’s 1984 (and Animal Farm, but we’re tak­ing 19eff­ing84 here) on the Kindle. It gets down­loaded and peo­ple start read­ing. Sometime later, there is a mys­te­ri­ous refund receipt email from Amazon for the cost of the book. And some­time after that, peo­ple turn on their Kindle to find that 1984 no longer exists on their Kindle. It has been thrown down the Memory Hole! What hap­pened was the pub­lisher dis­cov­ered they did not actu­ally have dig­i­tal dis­tri­b­u­tion rights for the work, only print dis­tri­b­u­tion. So Amazon went out and deleted it from everyone’s Kindle. They say this occur­rence is rare, but it’s a bit unset­tling that there is even a frame­work in place for this to be a pos­si­bil­ity! As Gizmodo says “Once I buy a book from Barnes & Noble, I never have to worry about them break­ing into my house and tak­ing it back, leav­ing me a pile of sin­gles on my night­stand.”

Given this, I am slightly less enthused about the Kindle, but I have done my research on the DRM and capa­bil­i­ties. Make Magazine’s blog has instruc­tions for get­ting 1984 on your Kindle. It uses a loop­hole in Australian copy­right law, which may or may not be legal in the US. That fixes this one par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion. But the Kindle DRM in gen­eral is rel­a­tively sim­ple, plus — DRM aside — it is even sim­pler to backup your own books. People call the Kindle “the iPhone of books” and I see par­al­lels in not just the design and usage, but in the DRM. Purchases from the iTunes Store, back when it had DRM, could have the DRM eas­ily stripped from them. I see no dif­fer­ence in the Kindle. Copyright law is a bit unclear on the legal­ity here. The DMCA has a fair-use clause that says things you can strip the DRM from you pur­chase under cer­tain con­di­tions, but I do not believe that has actu­ally been tested in court yet, espe­cially not for Kindle pur­chases, and espe­cially not given this recent devel­op­ment.

Admittedly, “sim­ple” for me does mean invok­ing a Python script from a com­mand line, which can be scary for many peo­ple. As they say: your mileage may vary. I am sure that at some point, an enter­pris­ing indi­vid­ual will make a sim­ple one-click graph­i­cal tool for doing the same. DRM never lasts long.

Posted in: Books

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