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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

D.R.M. and 1984

Remember George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm?

Well, they are banned books again - in a sense.



These two works are among the long list of landmark books that were once banned by certain governments.

History has a strange way of repeating itself.

In the digital age, books are becoming less available in the traditional paper-bound format, and are being sold increasingly as download-able digital media for e-reader devices such as the Amazon Kindle.

One would have thought that this was a good thing, since digital distribution is fast, inexpensive, efficient, and environmentally friendly. You would also think that once you purchased the content, that you own it - like any book on your bookshelf. Books are comprised of symbols that represent and form unique ideas, but they are also objects which can be owned and collected.

Although governments can topple and society and shift in extraordinary and sometimes evil ways, your personal library should always be an individualized repository of information and an important source of reference. We can't assume that public libraries will retain a historical record of every book ever published, so it's a good idea to keep your own private stash of essential reading for yourself and the generations of readers in your family to follow.

Enter Digital Rights Management (or D.R.M). This is software created to maintain strict control over copies of music, video, and electronic books. The technology allows the publisher to maintain total control over their product - even after it has been distributed to the consumer. It's a permanent umbilical cord from the vendor to the consumer, and can be used to track the usage of the e-book content for copyright infringement, or just for reasons of pure market research.

D.R.M. a tethered system that has many advantages. Updates, revisions, and automated corrections could be provided seamlessly to the consumer, and if they lost their digital copy, a digital replacement could be easily streamed to their PC, Kindle, TiVo, XBox or iPod. Think of it as a kind of subscription service and maintenance contract. It's a new way of thinking about printed material (or music and video content). It assumes that we have a lot of trust and faith in the system, since control over the ownership of the content is handled centrally and with far-reaching technical control.

So far so good. However, last week a significant flaw in the D.R.M. distribution model came to light. It turned out that Amazon had sold to its customers a number of e-books -including Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm - that they did not have authorization to distribute in a digital format. By using the capabilities built in with D.R.M. Amazon was able to delete copies of those e-books (and others) directly from the memory of their Kindle subscribers. Even though their customers had already purchased those particular e-books, the works were removed when their Kindles connected to the network without explanation. Amazon did provide those consumers with a refund.


It is quite ironic that the books that were deleted from individuals personal libraries just happened to include those two classic works by George Orwell. That is precisely the kind of threat that Orwell warns us about. Although there was nothing malicious or threatening about the actual action taken at Amazon, it does raise some important questions about First Amendment rights and censorship in the digital age. What safeguards are in place to prevent a corrupt government or fascist movement to take control of the flow of information using D.R.M. as a tool? The danger that D.R.M. could potentially by utilized in subversive ways to modify, change, or limit free access to literature, art, music, movies, and ideas is large.


To my thinking, digitally deleting en masse a classic work such as 1984 (which already has a long history of censorship) conjures up images of books burnings and wholesale fascism. I could very easily see D.R.M. being co-opted by various interest groups to limit access to ideas and content that they find objectionable.

The nightmare scenario gets worse. Every digital download with D.R.M. includes a link directly to you, and a lifetime history of your online transactions is on file somewhere. All of your reading, listening, and viewing history will someday end up in a mega-database, and who knows who will have access to that.


Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has now apologized for mass-deleting those e-books from their customers' Kindles without their permission. However, this conflict is not going to go away. The issues surrounding distribution and control of information is central to the functioning of a free society. It is a fundamental right, which arguably would override protection granted by current copyright laws. Threat of a copyright infringement lawsuit should not be used as a justification for going into the personal libraries of individuals behind their backs and destroying their reading material (virtual or not).



The downside of D.R.M. software gives me the creeps. If you believe that it will always be used to the benefit of society, then you have nothing to fear.

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