Back in 2007, Steve Jobs wrote an open letter to the music industry, entitled Thoughts on Music. In it, Jobs discussed the problem of DRM – digital rights management – on music files.
As Jobs said:
To begin, it is useful to remember that all iPods play music that is free of any DRM and encoded in open licensable formats such as MP3 and AAC. iPod users can and do acquire their music from many sources, including CDs they own. Music on CDs can be easily imported into the freely-downloadable iTunes jukebox software which runs on both Macs and Windows PCs, and is automatically encoded into the open AAC or MP3 formats without any DRM. This music can be played on iPods or any other music players that play these open formats.
Because of this document, Jobs and Apple spearheaded the move toward selling digital music files without DRM; files that are “interoperable,” that can be played on any device that supports their format. Ten years later, this is the norm for music (with the exception of streaming music services, where it is certainly fair to use DRM, since you don’t own the music, you merely rent it).
I was reminded of this today, as I was trying to resolve a problem with Amazon and my Kindle books. Back in 2009, I bought my first Kindle. I was living in France at the time, and paid to have it shipped from the US. I then wanted to buy Kindle books on it from Amazon UK, since it was easier that buying from the US (the Kindle device and Kindle books wouldn’t be sold in France for many years). Amazon’s support told me that I could not use my existing Amazon UK account to do this – perhaps because I wasn’t in the UK – and told me to create a second account.
I did so, and have been using two accounts since then. But this has gotten complicated. Not only do I need to sign into two different accounts, but I don’t get all the benefits of Amazon Prime on my Kindle account (my Prime subscription is on my main account; I’ve added the second account, and I can get free shipping, but nothing else: no Kindle Lending Library, no Prime Video, etc.).
I contacted Amazon recently, asking if there were a way to combine the two accounts. By email, I received two different replies to my question. One said that, sure, they could combine the accounts; the second said they could refund the books and I could buy them again on the main account.
When I finally got someone on the phone to discuss this, it turned out that a) they actually couldn’t combine the accounts, and b) they couldn’t refund the books (I have 350 purchases, about thirty of which are public domain books).
This wouldn’t be a problem if these ebooks didn’t have DRM. I would be able to simply download them to my Mac, then send them to the Kindle account of the main account. But Amazon offers no solution to this issue; a problem that they created back in 2009. (I could switch my “main” account to the second account, but that would introduce a host of problems, because that account is used for Amazon affiliate links, Audible, as well as being linked to accounts in the US and France.)
Lots of publishers sell ebooks without DRM; Take Control Books, who has published my books, doesn’t use DRM at all. I’m sure there’s some piracy, but this is outweighed by providing a smooth customer experience to the people who buy our books.
If music has managed to shed DRM, why have ebooks resisted? Part of what caused Jobs to issue his statement was a European Commission investigation into interoperability of digital files; why have there been no similar investigation regarding ebooks?
It’s annoying, and frustrating. You get locked into a platform, and can’t change. With 350 books purchased, I’m not going to switch to Apple’s iBooks, Nook, or any other service. I’m hostage to Amazon’s DRM for what, granted, is not a simple problem – my having two accounts – but one that the company should be able to fix.