The problem with digital rights management and digital services

Something that was brought to my attention from a friend who lives in another country was a problem that her friend had with Amazon and their licensed material for the Kindle. The argument for buying one is that you can purchase content cheaper and have it always available for reading virtually, and there is plenty of room to hold some of the books if you are in a place you don’t have a wi-fi connection. While this sounds all good, there is a little problem with this: who sets the rules of who can do what?

The agreement you must agree to be bound states that Amazon can do what ever it wants for any reason it wants – you are only licensing (renting) the content, not buying it. Amazon doesn’t owe you an explanation or reason for why they do anything or change this agreement. They can change this license at their discretion. They can terminate this agreement at any time without any penalty or cost to Amazon. This is key in understanding the problem. They basically have become the be all end all party without any responsibility. They aren’t the only ones as Apple and other digital rights based venders have similar agreements, so don’t think this is specifically picking on Amazon. If you read some of the “Cloud Computing” agreements, they also can terminate service with or without cause for any reason they want. This is a problem with digital rights and digital services.

If you haven’t heard, an IT worker in Norway had her Kindle wiped by Amazon for alleged copyright violations or pirating with a “linked account”. All attempts to resolve this with Amazon has only been received with something to the effect of the account was closed and all future attempts to open an account will be met with the same response. Basically, they thought this person was a crook, and took everything away from her. When the person protested and wanted to know what was going on, she was blocked for the rest of her life from any content ever. This is all documented on Martin Bekkelund’s blog if you want to see the fine details. Amazon has not responded to me on requests about this, so I can’t confirm if these are indeed the facts of what has happened or if it really has occurred.

In this specific issue, the problem stems from which publisher has the rights in a specific geographic area for the sale of that content. For instance, a publisher here in the US may have the US English rights, but they do not have the European English rights to sell their content in Europe. If another company has paid for those rights, then the US company is effectively stealing. It is a similar reason that DVDs are locked by geographic location, or that you get a message on YouTube or Pandora that the content isn’t licensed for your geographic area. By living and using her Kindle in Norway where supposedly no agreement exists, Amazon basically wiped her Kindle to keep from running afoul of their agreements with the various publishers. This wasn’t the consumer’s fault per se but rather a squabble that is ongoing in the publishing industry as a whole. I have to say that Amazon’s customer support team handled this very poorly, even if it was within their right to do so. What you need to take away from this incident is that we have no rights when DRM is involved, and we never have.

If true, this is a case of the problem with DRM and where companies using it exert more control than what they are legally entitled without any recourse for their actions. DRM was invented to control distribution of content such as movies, songs, software, and digital books. Does DRM give companies the right to do whatever they want to systems without a way to resolve and educate the end users when they make mistakes? Sould there be a way to get a specific reason and ways to resolve this short of destroying and irrevocably wiping something like a Kindle? What if this was a mistake?

The point here being that “wiping” or “terminating” service with or without cause is something that is very dangerous. I think that Amazon has shown why there needs to be better regulation on digital content and why someone needs a level head to establish these rules. Once the rules are established that allow reasons and resolutions to occur, I think that DRM and digital services will be a better option. In the mean time, you are at the mercy of your service provider and their whims.




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