Dead-tree functionality

Amazon Kindle's plans to acquire "lending" functionality: an archaic model of the 16th century.

Amazon's Kindle to

Image: CC-AT Flickr: goXunuReviews

I was both amused and puzzled by the recent news that Amazon is to allow book lending on the Kindle. At first glance this is great news: e-books will finally match some of the basic functionality available in the dead-tree format! At least this move shows that the content industry is beginning to get its collective head around some of the problems created by locking down and controlling users' devices and the content they have paid for.

At the same time, however, this move demonstrates Amazon's firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick. We live in a world where it takes some random 16-year-old about 24 hours to crack the latest DRM. Faced with technological progress which makes it easy and practically free to create an infinite number of copies of any piece of digital content, the content distribution industry's faith in DRM and Amazon's magnanimous "relaxation" of their DRM to allow book lending on the Kindle is a classic example of the Emperor's new clothes. Instead of accepting and then working with the economic reality that technology has turned content into a public good, Amazon, along with pretty much every other major content distributor, continues to invest in obsolete and ineffective DRM technology.

Lendable e-books are not the first paradox created by this approach. Remember when Amazon deleted the e-book version of 1984 from users' devices when they discovered they didn't have the rights to sell it? Have you ever thought about how much more fun it is to watch a pirated movie than having to sit through all the unskippable trailers on your legally acquired version? 

And really, just how absurd is it to have all your e-books tied to one particular kind of device? What if tomorrow you get bored of the Kindle and decide you'd actually like a Sony e-reader? Would you put up with only being able to listen to your music on your iPod but not on your Android phone; or with having a toaster which ties you to a particular bread manufacturer?

We need to be thinking about radically different business models for content creation and distribution, rather than trying to build 16th century dead-tree functionality into 21st century technology.

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She blogs at and tweets as @elmyra

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Comments (7)

  1. Jim Killock:
    Dec 16, 2010 at 02:20 PM

    This really is an increasing concern. DRM gets in the way of many legitimate uses.

  2. Boy Howdy:
    Dec 16, 2010 at 03:55 PM

    To me, this is a step in the right direction, and it should be aplauded. This allows a small amount of legal filesharing between devices. You can't share itunes content between ipods with different owners.

    I think this is a pretty successful business model that doesn't need to be radically different. Amazon have sold 5 million kindles this year and 140 ebooks for every 100 hardcopy books. If the adage of 'people who share content spend more on content' is true, then isn't this actually a clever addition to Amazon's business model?

    While I'm no fan of DRM, it's hard to argue that it's entirely innefective, and it's certainly not obselete. I would say that the average consumer doesn't know how or can't be bothered to get around DRM (that's left the the 16 year olds). It does get in the way of legitimate use, but it's a code based solution that is imperative to monetizing digital content.

    1. Boy Howdy:
      Dec 16, 2010 at 03:56 PM

      sorry those apostrophes dont look good

    2. Milena Popova:
      Dec 17, 2010 at 01:13 PM

      It is a step in the right direction. What grates, though, is that we have this amazing new technology that allows us to make copies of digital content at zero marginal cost, and there's a bazillion cool things we could do with it - and yet what the industry is doing is trying to catch up with technology invented in 1440. There might be hundreds of profitable new business models and exciting things we could do with this tech, but no-one's even trying to think of them because they're too busy protecting a business model which has just been made obsolete by technological progress.

      It's the equivalent of punch card operators declaring that they've learned to type... in 1990.

  3. Jim Killock:
    Dec 17, 2010 at 01:55 PM

    The question is, why do Amazon insist on DRM? Is it, as they might claim, that people would avoid paying and would share their books more than they or publishers “permit”, or is it because they wish to lock you and your collection of ebooks to their service, forever?

    If the latter, then DRM is more than just an inconvenience, it is actually an attempt to rig the market in favour of specific manufacturers and vendors.

  4. Boy Howdy:
    Dec 17, 2010 at 02:17 PM

    Is the drive for DRM coming from Amazon or the copyright holders?

  5. Jim Killock:
    Dec 17, 2010 at 08:11 PM

    I think what's telling is the multiplicity of DRM technologies, each from a different book vendor.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Milena Popova on Dec 16, 2010

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