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

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

Summary: 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.


Topics: Mobility, Amazon, Apple, Hardware, Legal, Security

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  • Games are written to specific hw so that's different.

    But will eBooks yeah Apples model is crap purpose built to screw the consumer. Amazon's I don't have as big a problem with since they are readable on every os/form factor. But still we need a real open standard to allow using another vendors reader. Also they should force resellers like amazon to work out discrepancies with publishers completely transparently to consumers. If you buy a book a at certain price it should remain yours no matter what disputes arise after the fact just like hardcopy. If Amazon has to pony up more money for each copy already sold then they have to do that behind the scenes without revoking your book or charging you more.
    Johnny Vegas
  • So Far My Ebook Collection Is Mostly Public Domain

    DRM concerns are a bit of a pain in the neck. I don't begrudge spending a few dollars on an ebook, but I do like to make sure my books are available without the use of some special proprietary software. Most of my ebooks have been downloaded from Project Gutenberg or some other source of public domain material because I know that I can use them anywhere. I do have apps for the major booksellers on my Android devices, and I don't mind spending money for a good book. I just don't want there to be any question about if I will be able to open it later, and I also like to lend books to family members and friends.

    I like that with Google Books I can read from any device that has a web browser, but even then I find books with no DRM at all more convenient.

    I understand why books with no DRM can be a big problem for authors and publishers when it opens the way for rampant copyright infringement. I'm not entirely sure what the solution to this is. I'd like to think that books could be offered DRM-free with the understanding they are not to be freely copied for the use of others without people in general abusing the privilege (of course there are always some who find a way to get out of paying even with DRM in place). I'm not sure it's really possible though.
    • Author Eric Flint and others disagree

      See, where Eric Flint argues that in his experience the availability of free on-line editions of his books has in fact _increased_ his paper-volume sales.

      Baen Publishing disagrees also (partly at the instigation of Flint), and in fact offers free editions of books by the following SF authors:

      John Joseph Adams Aaron Allston Christopher Anvil
      Catherine Asaro Lois McMaster Bujold John F. Carr
      Jeffery A. Carver Paul Chafe Rick Cook
      John Dalmas Chris Dolley David Drake
      Rosemary Edghill Linda Evans Eric Flint
      Michael Flynn Dave Freer David Friedman
      Mark A. Garland Scott Gier Roland Green
      Ellen Guon James P. Hogan Sarah Hoyt
      Tom Kratman Mercedes Lackey Keith Laumer
      Murray Leinster Holly Lisle Elizabeth Moon
      Howard L. Myers Charles G. McGraw Larry Niven
      Andre Norton Jerry Pournelle John Ringo
      Richard Roach Fred Saberhagen James H. Schmitz
      Ryk Spoor Marc Stiegler D. W. St. John
      Harry Turtledove Lars Walker David Weber
      K. D. Wentworth Michael Z. Williamson

      They started doing so ten years ago and have kept it up since. A commercial publisher like this would not be doing it if it didn't work!
  • Missed it A

    A game is software written for a specific OS and potentially specific hardware.
    That equates to Kindle or other Reader, not to the ebook itself.

    Other than that little "oops" not a bad article.
  • If I had to list the issues in order ...

    1. Copyright extensions that keep 98 percent of copyrighted works essentially unavailable to the average person.
    2. Ephemeral media that is single-use licensed with guaranteed vaporization.
    3. DRM which facilitates the above.
    4. Piracy, some of which has been caused by all of the above.

    I have an excellent copy of the collected Sherlock Holmes stories that my grandfather bought and read for years, then passed it down to my father, who gave it to me. It will go to my son and future generations because it is a quality book made to last. Adjusting for inflation, it cost roughly the same as a best-seller e-book which is licensed to exactly one person on one device and may only be useful for a few years at most. That's no bargain at all.
    terry flores
  • The problem with DRM...

    The problem with DRM is not that it exists, its that it is usually tied to a specific proprietary device or format. ePub is perfectly good "standard" e-book format but the DRM added to it keeps me from reading it on my kindle when I bought it on a nook (does Kindle even support ePub yet?).
    The DRM should be tied to individual that purchased it not a device. If the Library can revoke my rights to an ePub book that I read on my nook and "loan" it to the next guy with a Sony reader, the tech exists to not tie it to a device.
    The problem is If ebooks (and music) where tied to the person that purchased it, tech could also be developed that would allow the original purchaser to resell it, and they don't want that.
    Which brings me to your PS3/Xbox statement. Currently, I don't see developing for a hardware spec/OS as the same thing as DRM. That said, the current rumors are that both platforms are working on new "DRM" that would tie to the software to the Unique hardware that it was first installed in. At that point we are in the same boat as ebooks.
    If this goes on we will never "own" anything.
    • which...

      which is why, I will only buy from Amazon or Google for books as they can be read on pretty much any tablet, windows, or Mac based computer out there.
  • Difference between Files and Programs

    You are confusing files and programs. Games are programs. They are designed for a specific hardware configuration or operating system. I can't take a game that is made for Windows and play it on Linux because the game (program) is designed for Windows. On the other hand, ebooks are files which require a viewer to open and read it. You can say that these companies (Apple, Amazon, etc.) lock you in to a specific platform because they require a specific viewer to open the ebooks (file) but if they allowed other viewers to open the ebooks, then that would not be considered locked in.
  • Apple's IBooks store-You're locked in

    Adrian, I agree and do the same as you. Although I downloaded iBooks Author, I don't use it because of the onerous conditions of use. I bought the first and second Kindles and am a 1st adopter of the Fire, but I am also, a 1st adopter of iPhone and iPad and read my Amazon books on both. This dialogue is good. We need to keep talking, but keep voting with our billfolds until people get a clue.
    Reggie S
    • That's the problem...

      too many people are ignorant of this and just buy iBooks media on their ipad without even thinking about it and as usual, it will catch them off guard when something better comes along and it usually does.
  • Not Just DRM or E-Books...

    It should investigate movies as well... Crud, Apple should be called to account for their policies regarding all media price fixing! Who are they to tell people they cannot charge less on a competing device? Then demanding 30% from these vendors unfairly skews the advantages in their favor.
  • Perhaps they should...

    ...just make the Apple e-reader program for Windows, then make sure the code is written so that it runs a lot slower on the Microsoft machine. Just throw in a bunch of wait loops to make Windows look bad. Oh wait, that was Microsoft Office on the Apple Power PC platform, not Apple iTunes. Oops!
    Tony Burzio
    • How ironic

      that you should reference iTunes in a post slamming MS for a buggy Office Power PC app. That is just about Apple anything on Windows, especially if you consider security issues .
  • One Standard to Rule Them All

    We need ONE e-book format, not the Heinz 57 varieties we have now.

    We need to be able to read e-publications across multiple types and brands of devices - both e-books and magazines.

    We need ALL books and magazines available in electronic format, and without restriction in having text to speech enabled.

    We need FAIR pricing. e-pubs are much cheaper to make and distribute than physical ones. The price needs to reflect that.

    We need cloud storage of our e-pubs.

    We need decent color e-readers that are big enough for older people to use. 7" screens are a joke.

    The list can go on and on. DRM is probably a necessity, but I can live with it if there is only one kind with one great e-book format that is portable.
    • DRM is far from a necessity.

      Sometime in the future when our legislators are no longer so easily bribed, I believe that DRM will be recognized as a true threat to innovation, freedom of speech, and the preservation of knowledge. I doubt it will be in my lifetime though ...
      terry flores
  • i think videogame hardware lock in is completely different

    Video game consoles have specific developers for their consoles, they are different platforms. Apple locks you in with all their content which is available on different vendors, none of the developers are for apple specifically. There are no bands or artists or writers that write books specifically for the apple store. Apple uses a DRM lock in to lock you onto their hardware. Nobody else is doing that.