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eBook DRM: Can't succeed with it, won't thrive without it

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I’ve been predicting an eBook revolution for more than a decade, so I should applaud the fact that eBooks are finally taking off. The hardware problems are being solved, and as Gordon Kelly wrote here recently, a £100 Kindle could be the gateway to an eBook revolution.

But there’s still a major drawback that stops me from jumping on the bandwagon, and that’s our old friend DRM (Digital Rights Management). Good luck to Amazon if it can sell more eBooks than hardbacks, but I’m not buying any protected eBook files under the current terms and conditions. I certainly don’t go along with Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, who has just claimed that the physical book will be dead in five years - or at least, no longer the dominant way we read things.

Sorry, the world doesn’t change that quickly. For example, the audio CD is obviously in decline, but it’s still not dead a decade after millions of people got their first taste of free music from Napster. Books have been around hundreds of years longer than audio CDs, and I think they will be much harder to displace.

For one thing, it’s still much nicer to read a physical book than an eBook, whereas there’s no real advantage to listening to a physical CD rather than an MP3. For another thing, the music industry is increasingly giving up on trying to protect music with DRM; the publishing industry isn’t.

When I buy a book or a CD, I own it. I can lend it to a friend, sell it on eBay, or I can keep it forever. It’s unlikely to vanish into thin air. If I buy an eBook, I don’t really own it, I can’t lend it to anyone, and I can’t resell it. It could disappear for any number of reasons: I could lose it to a disk crash, or the seller could delete it remotely or stop supporting the DRM needed to read it.

A year ago, Amazon actually did delete copies of eBooks from people’s Kindle eBook readers. Before that, Google decided to stop supporting the DRM system used by its failed Google Video service, telling buyers: “After August 15, 2007, you will no longer be able to view your purchased or rented videos.” Microsoft did the same thing a year later, telling unfortunate customers: “As of August 31, 2008, we will no longer be able to support the retrieval of license keys for the songs you purchased from MSN Music or the authorization of additional computers.”

If I’m not going to trust fly-by-night companies like Google and Microsoft, I’m not going to trust Amazon either.

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