Read it and weep

A lack of creases and coffee stains is NOT the problem with e-book readers. DRM is


Image: READERS AGAINST DRM on a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Ok, first things first. At this time of year, I hate being told about "must-have" gadgets; usually some shiny flashing be-all-end-all game-changer that will spice up my life in ways I'd never have previously imagined. After all, how could I possibly know what I want? This year it's the e-book reader, the newest saviour of the publishing industry (or was that last year? I don't know, I don't think I was paying enough attention back then). Evidently, stories are no fun unless they can be read off a battery-powered glass plate. If I had a pound for every time I saw, heard or read about it, I might have actually bought one by now. Except that I won't, because I don't want one. Not now, not for Christmas, not ever. So there. Bah humbug.

But I've been stunned by some of the arguments made against the e-reader coming from fellow naysayers. The same comments have been made by members of my family, my friends, on radio and on television, in an almost identical manner from one person to the next. It goes something like this:

"Why would I want something that stores all of my books? I mean, unless I have difficulty lugging them around, like on holiday, what's the point? It's killing the printed word, y'know. But books in print are so much better because I like to feel what I'm reading; it adds to the experience... I like touching the creases and rough edges, I like the coffee stains on my battered copy of 1984... ah, the smell... ah, the physicality..."

Golly... a device that saves bookshelf space? And is crease-free? All that convenience is such a massive burden, isn't it? Well, you're welcome to your crumbling spines and your scribbled margins and your paper cuts, you Luddites. Yes, you who rambles on about craving the physicality of the printed word, but has not bought a "proper" copy of a music album for eight years, because it's easier to carry your entire audio collection around on your iPod. Try explaining that must-have gadget purchase to an audiophile while he sniffs the vinyl cover of his James Brown Live at the Apollo album like a cocaine addict, proclaiming how the scratches in the grooves of the record that cause it to skip abruptly add to its authenticity.

But you know there's no point, because your perversity is redundant in the shadow of the ever looming technological juggernaut that is the e-reader. Like most grievances with the e-book reading experience, they will almost inevitably be addressed with every successive invention aimed at indulging our personal preferences. Hell, we're already at the point where a bespoke paperback novel can be printed afresh at bookstore – coffee stains'n'all, if you so wish – in the same amount of time it takes to make an espresso!

Yet there is still one very important reason why I refuse to buy into this phenomenon; one which has quietly slipped into the e-book's very DNA without warning, almost completely unnoticed to the literary consumer. It is called Digital Rights Management [DRM]. Problem is, when arguments break out between my friends over e-readers, I still find myself having to explain what DRM is and how it works. And that's not a good sign, because by the time all is understood, DRM will have already locked us all out from fully owning the keys to that experience.

For instance, I say, you're free to lend your physical copy of War & Peace to whomever you please, sort of. In the US, it is your right of first sale; here, it is usually just too difficult to enforce otherwise in a second-hand market. But Amazon's Terms of Use clearly states that the content you purchase from the Kindle Store is 'licensed, not sold' and that 'unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not... assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party'. So, you will never own the e-book you bought from the Kindle Store because it was never sold to you in the first place! The same applies to Sony and Barnes & Noble; they also limit the number of different devices that can read the e-book in question (why six? Who thought that was appropriate?). Oh, and they must all be registered to the same account.

I tell them that e-book use relies on the principle of anti format-shifting: 'You may not transfer, copy or export Content from one device to another or to any media of any kind without maintaining the applicable digital rights management solution', meaning you can only convert an e-book's file format into one that is compatible with the device you want to read it on.

Which is what you would have to do if you had, say, an EPUB file of a novel you wanted to share on a friend's Kindle. Imagine that; the most popular instrument in its class does not support the most widely recognised e-book standard. Absurd, non? But it is the way of the world now; e-reader and publishing companies conspire to use DRM as a kind of vice grip on our balls.

And while you're squealing for mercy, can you really trust these businesses not to take advantage? If you want proof, google Amazon's Orwellian scandal, I say. If they can do it once to correct their own "honest" mistakes, they can do it again, for less honest reasons. Of course, they said they wouldn't. But what are the promises of someone who has you by the balls really worth?

Of course, Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo et al are under no obligation to change their business models to suit me. I understand that. I just fear that there are many keen e-book readers who don't. I have seen far too many eyes glaze over when I explain the threat of DRM not to know this. So, as a word of warning to that growing legion that I won't be joining any time soon, I believe you deserve to read books any way you want. Just make sure that the company you bought your e-reader from allows you to do that.

Merry Christmas!

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Comments (2)

  1. Billy Beck:
    Dec 28, 2011 at 08:24 PM

    The free books available online for my Kindle are not a DRM problem and their sheer mass makes it worthwhile.

  2. Habib Kadiri:
    Jan 06, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    @Billy Beck
    you make an excellent point. i side with you on free e-books; it may still be a hassle to transfer files between your Kindle and another e-reader, but as you say, the sheer mass makes it worthwhile.
    however, i must ask if the only works you read on your Kindle are free and if so, do you envisage only ever reading abridged versions of the classics, or the works of indie authors willing to give their content away for nothing? if so, i admire your discipline in resisting the allure of the mainstream publications.

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Habib Kadiri on Dec 22, 2011

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