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

This post, from Kirk Biglione, originally appeared on Medialoper on 6/23/09.

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 led 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 publisher 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.

Read the rest of the post, and also the discussion that follows in the comments section, on Medialoper. From the same site and author, also see Digging Deeper Into Amazon’s Orwellian Moment, for analysis of the incident in July of this year when Kindle owners found their purchased digital editions of George Orwell’s 1984 had been remotely removed from their devices.