Why Kindle’s DRM Free-for-All Is Bad for Consumers and for Amazon

The Kindle is popular for a reason.

Amazon has created the most painless ebook experience any consumer could possibly ask for. No other system makes the discovery, purchase, and transfer of ebooks so frictionless. As a result, Kindle has become the standard everyone else in the ebook business will have to match just to compete. So far no one comes close.

But Kindle has a dark side that is starting to emerge with startling regularity.

This past weekend Dan Cohen was surprised to find that he could not re-download some of his Kindle books. After several lengthy exchanges with Amazon customer support Cohen was informed that some (but not all) Kindle books have download limits. Or maybe it’s a limit on the number of devices they can be transferred to. Or it might be both…

To be honest, Amazon’s customer service department isn’t entirely sure of what limits are imposed on DRM protected Kindle books.

This isn’t the first complaint we’ve heard about Amazon’s Kindle policies. Not long ago a Kindle owner found that he’d lost access to his books after Amazon terminated his account. And a dispute with the Authors Guild has lead Amazon to allow publishers to disable text to speech capabilities AFTER consumers have purchased books.

Imagine buying a product with one set of capabilities then having that product downgraded after purchase. That scenario would never be tolerated with a physical product and it shouldn’t be considered acceptable simply because the product in question is digital.

In the past I’ve argued that Amazon has an obligation to fully disclose the DRM limitations of every Kindle title so that consumers can make an informed decision before they make a purchase. What the latest incident has revealed is that, in many cases, even Amazon doesn’t know what those limits are. Surprisingly, this seems to be by design.

Jeff Bezos says the Kindle is “DRM agnostic” and that it’s up to publishers to determine whether their books will be locked-down by DRM. While that may sound like an enlightened approach that gives publishers complete control over DRM, it’s a position that creates serious problems for both Amazon and Kindle owners.

By allowing each publishers to set its own DRM policy, Amazon has no idea what restrictions are in place for any given book, and no way of enforcing anything resembling a standardized DRM policy for the Kindle marketplace. The otherwise stellar Kindle user experience suffers as a result of these inconsistencies.

It’s obvious that Amazon has learned a lot from studying Apple’s iTunes strategy. The company has used this knowledge to build a product that offers a superior user experience. There’s one thing that Amazon apparently didn’t learn from Apple — the importance of maintaining a consistent and standardized DRM policy throughout your digital marketplace.

When Apple launched iTunes the company gave into record label demands and used DRM to protect downloads. What Apple didn’t do was allow each label to set its own DRM policy. Instead, Apple created a predefined DRM standard that was applied uniformly to every song sold through iTunes. Regardless of how you feel about DRM, the result was that consumers had a pretty good idea what they were getting when they downloaded a song from iTunes.

Imagine the chaos that would have ensued if Apple had allowed each record label to define its own DRM policy. Warner Brothers might decide that a song can only be transfered to two devices instead of five, and Sony might disable burn privileges. Then Steve Jobs would throw up his hands and say something like, “we have no control over DRM, we let the labels make those decisions.”

As absurd as that scenario seems, it’s exactly what Amazon is doing with the Kindle. And we’re just now starting to see the first signs of chaos as 1 million plus Kindle owners realize they have no clue what it is they’re buying.

It’s not hard to envision where this is heading. In the future, Kindle owners could find themselves with vast digital libraries, each ebook having a slightly different set of restrictions imposed on it. If nothing else, digital reading will be an adventure.

To prevent this from happening Amazon needs to take control of Kindle DRM and establish a standardized policy. Apple rightly acted as a mediator between the demands of copyright holders and the needs of consumers — Amazon should do the same.

Amazon needs to act quickly to address this issue. Once consumers stop thinking about how easy the Kindle is to use, and start thinking about DRM instead, the magic will be gone and it won’t ever return.

8 Responses to “Why Kindle’s DRM Free-for-All Is Bad for Consumers and for Amazon”

  1. Angela James says:

    Jeff Bezos says the Kindle is “DRM agnostic” and that it’s up to publishers to determine whether their books will be locked-down by DRM. While that may sound like an enlightened approach that gives publishers complete control over DRM, it’s a position that creates serious problems for both Amazon and Kindle owners.

    And Amazon will take 65% of the cover price for your privilege of choosing no DRM.

  2. Kirk says:

    And they take the same if you choose DRM. Either way, Amazon wins.

  3. K says:

    Amazon does have expenses, though. Especially with the cellular connections … and will they not allow unlimited downloads if the publishers choose to not put any restrictions themselves?

    Oh, and about the drm, as Amazon MP3 was to Apple iTunes Store, clearly there could be a ???* to Amazon Books. That is, when and if Kindle becomes as successful as the iPod and publishers start seeing Amazon, not as a partner but as a monopolistic force. As a tweet notes, “Maybe they thought that by succumbing to every pressure from publishers, they can effectively bribe them into exclusive deals. ??”

    * I would bet on Google but if I know Google, they will probably prefer to just create an infrastructure for sellers to sell books themselves, free of DRM.

  4. Kirk says:

    @K There will be plenty of competition for Amazon in the ebook market. Unfortunately, most of that will be locked down by DRM. The major publishers aren’t about to sell DRM-free…yet.

    I expect to see this play out exactly the way it did with music. Eventually publishers will dump DRM when they realize the impact it’s had on the marketplace.

  5. tucker says:

    Lets hope they don’t abandon DRM. Copyright law is losing public approval, and once that goes out, so does livelihood. I say this as someone who writes, we need to protect the intellectual property of writers (cough, cough, GOOGLE) in order to allow writing to exist at all. Books have never been victims of piracy the same way music was pre-iTunes, though. Still, amazon is doing a great thing, yes they need to standardize their policy, but remember, the publisher isn’t in as crappy a situation as the record label was–Amazon definitely has less clout over them. But since amazon delivers the book to the customer and people love this service, why shouldn’t they take 65%? I bet they’ll increase publishers’ sales by a third, which would more than cover it.


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