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Free Software Foundation Launches Campaign to Persuade Amazon to Go DRM-Free


Defective by Design, an anti-digital rights management (DRM) initiative founded by the Free Software Foundation in 2006, has launched a petition drive aimed at persuading Amazon to remove digital rights restrictions from the books that Kindle owners purchase and download from the Kindle Store. The DRM issue has been a contentious one since the Kindle was launched in November 2007, and took on an uglier dimension when Amazon surreptitiously and wirelessly removed two George Orwell novels from its customers’ Kindles earlier this year. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos later issued a very strong apology for the way Amazon handled the Orwellian book removal.

The Defective by Design petition, located online here, reads as follows:

We believe in the freedom to read

We believe in a way of life based on the free exchange of ideas, in which books have and will continue to play a central role. Devices like Amazon’s are trying to determine how people will interact with books, but Amazon’s use of DRM to control and monitor users and their books constitutes a clear threat to the free exchange of ideas.

That is why we readers, authors, publishers, and librarians demand that Amazon remove all DRM, including any ability to control or access the user’s library, from the Kindle.

Amazon’s assurances that it will refrain from the worst abuses of this power do not address the problem. Amazon should not have this power in the first place. Until they give it up they will be tempted to use it, or they could be forced to by governments or narrow private interests. Whatever Amazon’s reasons for imposing this control may be, they are not as important as the public’s freedom to use books without interference or supervision.

You can add your online signature to this petition here, if you wish.

Here is a list of Kindle books that have been tagged as DRM-free by their authors and publishers, and here is another with DRM-free tags placed by readers.

As an author, a publisher, Kindle owner, and reader, I have been a supporter of these campaigns. But it is worth stating again here my belief that ultimately Amazon will change its tune on Kindle DRM both because of campaigns such as the petition and DRM-Free tagging and because it will be a good business decision, just as it has been a good business decision for Apple, after years of consolidating its position, to remove many of the DRM constraints it has placed on iTunes tracks:

Just as a time came when Apple was able to locate its corporate self-interest in allowing customers to remove DRM from their iTunes store audio purchases for a price, a similar time will probably come for Amazon with respect to customers’ Kindle Store purchases. In both cases, the timing seems to require that some critical mass of the applicable publishers reach a certain nuanced understanding of and experience with the changing revenue streams and marketing channels that digital publishing and distribution allow. It’s not exactly dialectical materialism, but it is a world in which changes in politics must be driven by, rather than be the drivers of, changes in economic relationships.

We can’t all be Lawrence Lessig or Cory Doctorow, and neither Amazon nor Apple will ever be Google, Creative Commons, or Project Gutenberg. Most publishers possess little understanding of Lessig or Doctorow or anyone else who has discovered the viral (and, often, easily monetized) marketing power of setting one’s words free in selected venues, and many probably label them as the “free books crowd” and shut down reflexively in the face of any opportunity to listen to them or learn from them. Call me Pollyanna, but I believe that Jeff Bezos does possess some nuanced understanding of these issues, and in time, armed with the larger and larger payments his company’s Kindle division is making to publishers, will be in a better position to bring them along into a future where there is a wide acceptance of DRM-free electronic publishing standards. But on the Darwinian path to that future, it would be very uncharacteristic of Amazon not to continue to consolidate and strengthen its position.

Can You Say e-Book Empire? The Kindle, Stanza, and Fair Trade

Amazon Acquires e-Book Competitor Stanza’s Parent, Third-Party Vendor Seeks an M-Edge with Kindle Ads in Apple’s Subways, and the Net Whispers its Fears About World Domination

The Bottom Line: Is Kindle Content Coming to Your Computer?

In the April Kindle Nation survey, in the course of asking participants about other issues (DRM, text-to-speech, and the pricing of Kindle editions), I decided to raise another issue as quietly as possible: did respondents identify with the statement “I am concerned that Amazon may be developing a monopoly over digital books.” 129 respondents checked the box — 10.5% of the total. Enough to notice, but fewer than a third of the numbers that expressed concern about DRM, TTS, and the $9.99 controversy.

But sometimes real economic events influence public sentiment. It turns out Amazon may be serious about this Kindle thing. You heard it here first — a year ago in my guide for the Kindle 1 — that Amazon would make Kindle content available on other mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPod touch. Perhaps you didn’t pay too much heed when I wrote in the March 23 issue of Kindle nation that “Within months … Kindle books will be available on netbooks, iTouchTablets, Blackberrys, Macs, and PCs.”

Events are moving quickly now. Last night, while Blackberry owners were dreaming about when Kindle content would make it around to them, we learned that Amazon has purchased a tiny year-old company called Lexcycle that owns the free Stanza e-book platform that has been downloaded by at least 1.3 million readers worldwide.

There’s plenty to sort out here. Just for starters:

  • Unless Amazon’s purchase of Lexcycle is a draconian move aimed only at taking Stanza out of play as a competitor, the fundamental (if not, probably, first) order of business for these unequal but newly married partners will be to make Stanza play nice with Kindle content
  • Stanza can be downloaded to just about any Mac or PC, any desktop, laptop, notebook, or netbook, so it seems like a no-brainer that the Lexcycle acquisition should provide Amazon with the means to push Kindle content to every kind of computing device from the most to the least mobile
  • Stanza works alongside an app called Bonjour for the iPhone or iPod Touch, which has functionality similar to WhisperSync
  • Stanza also gives Amazon an interesting set of choices to make around DRM and open publishing platforms, since Stanza reads the EPUB format that has been widely promoted as a possible publishing industry standards

So why did I begin with that passing suggestion that some Kindle owners may be concerned about the potential for Amazon to monopolize or otherwise dominate the world of ebooks? It’s pretty simple, really. While only 10.5% of our survey respondents expressed the concern, it is a growing concern among authors, publishers, and — least surprisingly of all — Amazon’s book retailing competition.

Amazon would probably love it if every one of its Kindle content and accessory partners took the approach of M-Edge, which is paying for huge ads in the New York City subways promoting the Kindle, like the one at the right (photo credit to Silicon Alley Insider). But some of us actually expect our relationship with Amazon to be a two-way street.

Personally, I have been concerned lately that Amazon seems willing to offer its marketing power very unevenly to authors and publishers. For instance, Amazon’s “right” to simply ignore small indie publishers who want to participate in the same kind of promotions that Amazon routinely makes available to Random House or Harlequin may seem like a simple contract prerogative to Amazon staff, but it’s not that simple. The more vertical and horizontal power that Amazon has in the book marketplace, the more the mega-retailer may find itself in a position similar, at least conversely, to the position of Blockbuster Video, Borders Books, and large publishers and distributors when they were litigation targets in years past for tilting the playing field to which smaller, independent business “partners” had access.

On the other hand, it is also entirely possible that Amazon will realize that its increasing digital content hegemony will increase its exposure either to litigation or fair trade scrutiny and, in a funny contrarian way, will thus become a little less arrogant, and a little more willing and able to act in ways that promote a level playing field and continue to open creative and business opportunities for independent content providers. That scenario, in the long run, would also be the best for Kindle owners, other ebook readers, and readers in general as well as the various kinds of ink-stained wretches among us.

Authors and Publishers Speak Out About Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Although there are plenty of publishers who haven’t learned from the recent history of the music industry and are afraid of lifting DRM from their Kindle editions, a growing number of authors and publishers are taking a more forward-looking approach. Popular tech author Shelley Powers blogged recently about how DRM restrictions are not an appropriate way to protect copyright:

“Teleread and MobileRead have started a campaign to make these DRM free books more easy to find. If a book is DRM free, just tag it “drmfree” at the Amazon site. It tickled me to be the first to tag my own books.

“My books being offered DRM free doesn’t change how I feel about copyright. I still believe in the importance of copyrights. My books are still copyrighted, at least until the publishers and I decide the time is ripe to release them into the public domain. I am dependent on the royalties I make from my books, and I lose money through piracy of my books. But I have never believed in DRM, which only hurts the legitimate owners.

“I’m currently working on my first self-publishing book, which I’ll be releasing as a Kindle, as well as in other formats. Regardless of how I distribute the book, not one version of the book will have DRM.”

Powers’ publisher, O’Reilly, recently announced that it was making 160 of its book available without DRM in the Kindle Store, with more to follow in coming weeks. Hundreds of independent publishers have now made thousands of titles DRM-free in the Kindle store.

Author Joe Konrath, who we mentioned above because he “gets” the economics of ebooks, is also light years ahead of many of his colleagues when it comes to understanding DRM:

“Not only do ebooks cost too much, DRM is a disgrace, for a myriad of reasons, and the ‘text to speech’ feature is not something the publishing world should be concerned about,” Konrath wrote to Kindle Nation last week.

(For more free news and tips about the Amazon Kindle, subscribe to Kindle Nation, the free weekly email newsletter by Stephen Windwalker, or download a month’s worth of issues to your Kindle for just 99 cents!).

Thousands of DRM-Free Books in the Kindle Store

Where Do the Citizens of Kindle Nation Stand on Text-to-Speech, Digital Rights Management, and the $9.99+ Boycott?

Early Results from the First Kindle Nation Citizen Survey

(This post first appeared in the free Kindle Nation weekly email newsletter on April 13, 2009).

Over a thousand Kindle Nation citizens have exercised their citizenship rights during the past week by participating in the first ever Kindle Nation Citizen Survey. The survey will remain open throughout the month of April, and you can still participate by clicking here, but that won’t keep us from sharing some response tidbits with you.

First, let’s take a look at where the Nation stands on three controversies that are now live in the ebook world. I wasn’t attempting to “poll” in the traditional sense so much as to measure interest, so I provided the following choices and got the following result:

With which, if any, of these statements do you agree? (Choose as many as you wish. Please use the comment section to further describe your views or concerns).

1. I believe that it is important for Amazon to remove Digital Rights Management (DRM) from titles in the Kindle Store.

367 33.8 %

2. I believe that it is important for Amazon to maintain Digital Rights Management (DRM) for titles in the Kindle Store.

87 8.0 %

3. The text-to-speech feature on the Kindle 2 is important to me and should be maintained on as many titles as possible.

442 40.8 %

4. I will consider switching to another e-reader in the future if Amazon does not remove DRM from Kindle Store offerings.

81 7.4 %

5. I am concerned that Amazon may be developing a monopoly over digital books.

107 9.8 %

6. I would consider boycotting Kindle books priced above $9.99.

359 33.1 %

7. I’ll make my own decisions about which e-books are worth more than $9.99 to me.

723 66.7 %

Totals 1083 100%

Now for a bit of analysis and follow-up.

DRM. The only real yes vs. no faceoffs under this question came on the DRM question and the $9.99 price boycott, and participants have weighed in with a very strong 367 to 87 against DRM. Of the 81 respondents who said they might switch to another e-reader over the DRM issue, 72 had already taken position 1; so the real vote against DRM stands at 376 to 87. However, this level of response also makes it clear that a very large number of respondents (over 600) don’t know or don’t care about DRM. My guess is that “don’t know” has an edge here, and so I offer some useful Teleread links on the issue and the recently developed anti-DRM campaign, as well as another article in this newsletter:

DRM: A TeleRead primer by Chris Meadows

A Campaign to Organize Against DRM

drmfree tag campaign starts on Amazon: Help identify safer-to-own books and other items!

drmfree tag campaign on Amazon picks up steam: Endorsed by Cory Doctorow and home-paged at MobileRead. More tips, such as how to create Kindle books untainted by DRM.

Not everyone will care about DRM. But if you are buying books from the Kindle Store with the expectation that you will always own those books and be able to use them in any non-commercial way that does not violate copyright, the DRM issue may be more important to you than you yet realize.

The $9.99 Price Boycott. Two things really jumped out at me on this one. One (which exposes the fact that it is not exactly a clear faceoff) is that there has been a very high level of participation: even after subtracting the 105 people who (and this is perfectly plausible) selected both statements #6 and #7, 977 out of 1083 survey respondents (90%) weighed in on the price boycott issues. This confirms for me that, especially in our current economic circumstances, Kindle owners care deeply about price, but also understand its complexities and, in most cases, prize the access to content that the Kindle gives them. To learn more about the nascent price boycott, see this article. And the fact that fewer than 40% of the respondents who did weigh in support the boycott is also reflected in other data, such as the fact that, this morning when I checked, 5 of the top 10 titles on the Kindle Movers and Shakers bestselling (or relative velocity) list had Kindle prices over $14.

Stay tuned for more information from the Kindle Nation Citizen Survey throughout the month of April. And please participate if you haven’t done so already!

(This post first appeared in the free Kindle Nation weekly email newsletter on April 13, 2009).