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.

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