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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

“Going, Going, Gone”: The Kindle, disappearing digital content and the ever-enduring Bob Dylan

I'm closin' the book

On the pages and the text

And I don't really care

What happens next.

Iran was back in the news again last week when a court ruled that Mohsen Namjoo, an Iranian singer-songwriter who has been likened to “an Iranian Bob Dylan,” was sentenced to five years in prison for recording music that "dishonors" passages from the Qur'an.

And while the prosecution of Persia’s own “poet of a generation” is just another glaring example of Iran's tyrannical theocracy run amok, it turns out the sentencing of Namjoo wasn’t the most flagrant suppression of free through to have occurred last week.

That distinction goes to Jeff Bezos, founder of online book behemoth,

Last Friday, as Namjoo was learning he had been sentenced to five years in prison for "his unconventional singing" of the Muslim holy book, hundreds of Kindle owners woke up to discover that two books they thought they had bought and paid for had, in fact, only been paid for.

It seems that what Amazon selleth, apparently Amazon can taketh away. And that’s precisely what happened.

Jeff Bezos has long been a proponent of the dissemination of digital content. For Bezos, the notion of delivering content (read: the millions of books Amazon sells) to anyone, anywhere, anytime has been more than a catchy mantra—it’s been a personal mission of sorts. And with the launch of the Amazon Kindle this past March that mission was by-and-large realized. But at what cost?

Those who anted up to buy the popular e-book reader, apparently. And while Amazon’s decision to surreptitiously remove content from the Kindle was hardly the best move from a public relations perspective, Amazon did nothing illegal.

It turns out that when you “buy” an electronic copy of anything—a song, a book, a movie, it doesn't matter—you don’t actually own that copy free and clear. It is encumbered by something called digital rights management software, or DRM.

Most of us have never heard the term, DRM, and nine times out of ten it doesn’t matter.

The new Britney Spears single, Dan Brown’s latest literary endeavor, the most recent episode of “The Office” shuffled off to our iPods— we paid for it, which presumably gives us the right to listen or watch it when we like, where we like, and with whom we like. Sort of.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, you don’t actually own digital content encrypted with DRM. You are for all intent and purposes renting it.

Again, nine times out of ten not a problem. But it can cause some serious issues when the person who truly owns that content (in this case the publisher) decides to renege on the rental agreement.

It turns out this is precisely what happened last Friday with Penguin, the publisher of the titles in question, forcing Amazon to recall the books without insomuch as a warning.

There's no question Jeff Bezos is a visionary. But in looking to the future, even he is tethered to the fact that he must keep his content providers—aka the publishers—happy. And so when the Penguin Group decided not to offer an electronic editions of the books, Bezos caved.

Amazon’s Communications Director, Drew Herdener, issued a statement claiming that the books were added by an outfit that didn’t have the rights to the material in the first place. Plausible enough, I suppose. But the fact that Amazon can remove content at their sole discretion, effectively assuming the role of a modern-day, Orwellian Big Brother is the real looming danger. And herein enters the irony.

The two titles that Amazon effectively ‘banned’ by removing them from the Kindle with a simple flick of the switch?

and Animal Farm—perhaps two of the 20th century’s most harrowing examples of the totalitarian suppression of free thought.

Kudos to you, Jeff Bezos. Your prophetic vision of a digital utopia has been fully realized. Thanks to devices like the Kindle, content flows freely to anyone, anywhere, anytime. And now we know who will be the guardian of that content. It seems 2009 will be like nineteen eight-four, after all.

Fortunately, there are people like Mohsen Namjoo and Bob Dylan—iconoclasts of change with prophetic messages of their own—who will continue to fight to make sure that whoever controls the message can never control the messenger, no matter how it may be delivered…

I been hangin' on threads,
I been playin' it straight,
Now, I've just got to cut loose

Before it gets late.

So I'm going,

I'm going,

I'm gone.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

" turns out the sentencing of Namjoo wasn’t the most flagrant suppression of free through to have occurred last week."

While the ability of Amazon to withdraw content from the Kindle could be upsetting and annoying, it hardly ranks alongside the five-year sentence that Namjoo will have to undergo in some Iranian hell-hole.

Maybe you should be criticizing Penguin for withdrawing their content, rather than Bezos for keeping control of his product.

Either way, how about a little perspective - one man's freedom against another's irritation?
I know which offends me most.