Should the DoJ investigate e-book DRM and hardware lock-in?

The problem is that when you start to examine lock-in to specific hardware, you're opening a can of worms.

U.S. antitrust regulators have decided that it is now time to go after various publishers, and Apple, alleging collusion in e-book prices and sales models. But there is one subject that is absent from the lawsuit: DRM.

Should the Justice Dept. extend the lawsuit to cover the DRM lock-in models used by the likes of Apple and Amazon? There are plenty who think so. Here are just a couple of examples.

Cory Doctrow --- Boing Boing:

"Now they're going after various publishers and Apple over price fixing ... but they're missing all the big elephants in the room: platform lock-in by way of DRM, prohibitions created by both Apple and Amazon on using third-party payment systems on their apps, and all the associated ticking bombs that represent the real, enduring danger to the e-book marketplace."

Tim Carmody --- Wired:

"It's completely silent on retailers' and device manufacturers' use of DRM to lock customers into a single bookstore. Amazon is purely a market innovator, not a budding monopolist, even as the DOJ notes that Amazon's pricing power helped determine pricing power across the industry."

While I find the issue of price fixing abhorrent, I feel that DRM and hardware lock-in has the potential to be more harmful to the end user. Pricing is at least visible to the user prior to deciding to purchase an e-book or not. The consequences of DRM might not become clear for weeks, months or even years.

For example, Apple only offers iBooks on the iOS platform, so when one day your favorite iDevice goes the way of all electronic devices, you either have to buy a new device or lose your entire iBooks investment.

You're locked in. This is the reason why I don't buy e-books from Apple's iBooks store.

The situation with Amazon's Kindle is better. Once you've bought the book from Amazon you can read it on a wide variety of platforms. Along with the Kindle hardware ecosystem there are reader apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Mac and PC. There's also a Kindle Cloud Reader that allows you to read the books in a web browser -- so you Linux users are also covered.

The problem is that when you start to examine lock-in to specific hardware, you're opening a can of worms. Apple locks you into the iOS platform when you buy a book through iBooks, but this is far from unique. For example, buy an Xbox or a PS3 and all the games you buy lock you into the platform. You can't take an Xbox game and play it on a PS3 or PC, even if that same game is available on all three platforms.

If the Justice Dept. takes a close look at how e-books can be used to lock consumers into a particular platform, it could easily be extended to a whole host of other content. This sort of intervention could have far-reaching consequences, going far beyond e-books.

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