Where is eBook Interoperability?

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.

11 thoughts on “Where is eBook Interoperability?

  1. I agree with all your points except one, Kirk. Having two accounts IS a simple problem. You explained it in three words, and each of the email responses outlined a simple solution. Both of those solutions are trivial and effective, so the only difficult problem is that Amazon refuses to take the actions that their customer support people suggest.

    • Well, it’s probably not a _common_ problem. It’s not even necessarily a merging of the accounts that’s necessary; all they need to do is transfer the purchased books. I can understand that this might take some time, but given my purchase history with Amazon – I buy a shit-ton of stuff from them – I’d have expected that they would find a solution.

  2. “If music has managed to shed DRM, why have ebooks resisted?”

    If music has no pricing power, why have eBooks maintained pricing power.


    I mean, it’s all well and fine to be frustrated with the lack of eBook interoperability. It’s a valid consumer complaint. But you tell a fairy tale to illustrate your point.

    Music followed the Steve Jobs letter because they had no choice, because they already had no pricing power, because they’d fucked up a decade earlier and had already made DRM-free music the default.

    If I were a book publisher, or if I were a film or TV publisher, I’d sure be happy my industry had DRM.

  3. At this point, move on to another platform!

    You can keep the devices you have for what you have already bought, but it’s time for a clean slate!

  4. Use Calibre and Alf’s extension to convert any Kindle ebook to the format you want, including PDF and other open formats that are compatible with any system.

    No problem.

  5. Well, you legitimately purchased the books for yourself, so I would think it’s reasonable for you to use Calbire and the DeDRM plugin to create DRM-fee versions of the AZW3 files. As long as you don’t share them with others, which I doubt you would, I don’t think most authors would have any qualms with creating DRM-free files for your own personal use.

    • Certainly in the UK, the Kindle store terms of use state:

      “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider”

      They rent rather than sell, at least in legal terms.

    • Beyond Richardr’s point, it’s worth noting that you are NOT doing commerce with the author. The author has signed over rights to the publisher, and that is whom you are doing commerce with.

      So it’s a matter of the publisher having qualms or not with you creating DRM-free files for your own personal use of content you have licensed, but don’t own. The author has no say in any of this.

      (Of course, no one is ever getting prosecuted, or facing any other consequences for doing this, as makes common sense. But the distinction of whom you are doing commerce with seems worth noting in principle, even if it doesn’t really matter in reality.)

  6. TOR and O’Reilly are also DRM free and they’re still making money.

    Once upon a time I had an exchange with a tech support guy at Booksamillion when the site temporarily stopped showing the formats available for the book. I also mentioned that the ‘BUY’ button was a problem–it should say ‘rent’ or ‘lease’. ‘Buy’ is a lie since there are no rights to resell, no rights to assign it to as heir on death, basically no rights for the customer at all. He went through contortions to agree the DRM and ‘buy’ was stupid, but didn’t want to be fired by saying so. I’ve noticed that these days it’s much more common for sites to say ‘download’ or ‘add to cart’, which removes the justification that if we ‘buy’ it we own it and can do anything we want with it.

  7. Great article. I couldn’t agree more. I personally don’t buy eBooks unless I can get them DRM-free. I went to Iceland recently, and was pleasantly surprised to find the Rough Guides offer DRM-free ebooks as both ePub and PDF (presumably Kindle format, too, I didn’t check). The Rough Guide to Iceland is their usual high-quality guide book, and I put it on my iPhone and iPad in both formats so I had the convenience of eBook format, but the attractively laid-out PDF when I wanted. But no way would I have bought a DRMed guide book.

    Same with videos, too, for me.

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