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Not Buying The Kindle

As a supporter of Project Gutenberg‘s eBook philosophy, I refuse to purchase a device that operates solely in proprietary file format and has hinky public domain vs. copyright and ownership issues associated with it. Lately, the PG-forum arguments for and against the Kindle have turned into ones of readability; subjective terms such as “comfortable” and “readable” are thrown about in place of that device’s accessibility and obsolescence. Personally, I have no problems reading the entire fraking Odyssey on my iPhone’s Stanza app after having downloaded it directly from Project Gutenberg. First of all, minimum eyestrain given that I practically live on my iPhone.  And other phones exist that offer comfort and reader resolution for long periods of time.  More importantly, it’s a special-super-secret-format-free, public-domain eBook which I can download again onto another phone once the iPhone is put out to pasture.  Ostensible readability is a sad metric with which to hold the Kindle up as the standard for eBook readers to come.

Back to the shady book ownership issues associated with the Kindle.  Do you know what I like about books more than readability?  The fact that they’re mine.  Once I purchase a book, I can do whatever I want with it: read it silently, read it out loud to myself or someone else, store it on my shelf for years, loan it to a friend, sell it or give it away to a library or school.  The same versatility applies to plain vanilla ASCII e-texts on computers and cellphones.  Can you do that with a Kindle eBook?  The answers range from definitely not to we don’t know, and this is why we cannot let Amazon’s Kindle or any other proprietary book reader establish the technological and legal standards for such devices.  Cory Doctorow writes in today’s BoingBoing (emphases mine):

Back in February, the Authors Guild, a lobby group representing less than 10,000 writers, argued that the Kindle’s ability to read text aloud infringed on copyright (it doesn’t — and even if it does, the infringement lies not in including the feature, but rather in using it; this is the same principle that makes the VCR legal). Amazon folded and agreed to revoke the feature.

Now comes some news about how they’re doing this, from the Knowledge Ecology International site:

“Beginning yesterday, Random House Publishers began to disable text-to-speech remotely. The TTS function has apparently been remotely disabled in over 40 works so far. Affected titles include works by Toni Morrison, Stephen King, and others. Other notable titles include Andrew Meachem’s American Lion, and five of the top ten Random House best-sellers in the Kindle store.”  I’ve been trying to get a statement from Amazon about this since February: how does disabling text-to-speech work? It appears that there’s a text-to-speech “flag” in the Kindle file-format that the Kindle looks for and responds to, disabling the feature if it’s set to 0 (a perl script called mobi2mobi can reset the bit to 1).  But what no one at Amazon will tell me is what other flags are lurking in the Kindle format: is there a “real only once” flag? A “no turning the pages backwards” flag?

This makes me a lot less inclined to purchase a Kindle than arguments about reader vs. phone readability and other straw-boogey-men raised by a few authors, their publishing houses and Amazon.  Think before you buy.  Your purchase has far-reaching media access and ownership implications.

3 comments… add one

  • Amardeep May 15, 2009, 8:59 AM

    Some compelling points. I’ve been reluctant to go Kindle for these reasons, and also because a lot of the books I buy are academic/small press books, which often aren’t released in EBook format anyway. Once more presses start releasing books digitally I will start shopping for an E-Book reader.

    Someone should release a more ‘open source’/Gutenberg friendly version of a reader that also serves as a light/reduced functionality tablet PC.

  • Dave May 15, 2009, 1:46 PM

    Amen. This is also why I refuse to buy an iPod. If the market rules, then I don’t want to be part of an artificially restricted market on media that empowers rent-seeking corporations at the expense of, basically, our cultural freedom.

  • Naunihal May 15, 2009, 6:07 PM

    I’m sympathetic to many of the concerns you’re raising, but will probably go the opposite direction. I don’t think I’ll use the kindle so much for books (although many of the books I assign to undergraduates will be available on Kindle, I hope) but as a substitute for printing out the large number of articles in pdf format that I have to peruse. Very often I’ll print out 3 articles just to read them once and throw them away, which is hugely wasteful. At the same time, I have a hard time reading academic material on an LCD screen. I want something light I can put in my lap and an ebook reader will fit that bill.

    Also, for the articles I keep, it’s a pain to keep them filed in hard copy. I’d rather have a virtual copy with all my annotations, which I can do with an ebook reader like the Kindle.

    Lastly, when using it as a printer substitute for PDFs many of the proprietary format issues go away. Amazon doesn’t own the PDF format, and they can’t take away the articles from me. I don’t need to pass the hard copy of the article along, I can email the virtual copy or just send the URL of the journal.

    My issue with books is different. I could see using it for “disposable” books (as with articles) where the printing and shipping of the book is a waste, but I think they’ve still priced most novels too high when used books are so cheap. What I really want are guidebooks, but the publishers are keeping them off the electronic market, probably out of fear of piracy.

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