Stallman vs Amazon Kindle: Are eBooks Bad?

The idea that print books and the Kindle were in opposition has been around pretty much as long as there’s been a Kindle.  In fact, if you go back far enough, you can find people talking about the impending end of the written word pretty much since there was the option to view words on a screen.  The Kindle just made it easy and enjoyable enough for people in general to take the “threat” seriously.  The transition hasn’t been perfect, nor has it always been smooth.  There are always problems with innovations.  For the most part, however, it is clear to everybody that eBooks are thriving.

That is, at least, the impression I was under.  A recent article by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement, the GNU Project, and general digital freedoms activist, seems to insist not only that this turning point has yet to come, but that we should resist it on principal.  His recent article, titled “The Danger of E-books” highlight the shortcomings of digital reading media by comparing point for point across a list of freedoms that can be associated with print books.  Emphasis is placed on the value of anonymous purchasing, lack of required proprietary technology or software, resale capabilities, and the differences between ownership and licensing.  He makes what could be considered some good points, but that depends on your point of view and priorities.

From what I know of Stallman, anonymity is a major issue for the guy.  I can understand the urge for that kind of complete privacy, but at the same time it is increasingly proving more of a daily hassle than it is worth.  I’m not claiming that as a good thing, just a fact of life.  His argument that a book can be purchased anonymously, where a Kindle or Kindle eBook cannot, really only applies if you are the sort of person who makes no purchases online in the first place, who doesn’t use a credit card, and who avoids all non-cash transactions.  This isn’t an eBook problem, it’s a modern commerce problem.

A similar problem applies to his objections to restricted reselling.  Pulling an example from another industry, look at the problems that reselling have caused video game production companies.  Not only are many consumers more likely to purchase used copies than new ones, but these used copies are a continual drain on their original creators who must maintain any server-side components in spite of the fact that purchasers after the first bring no money to the originating company.  A similar problem would arise for a company like Amazon if they were to offer resale Kindle books.  Customers come to the platform expecting to have their books available to them on all their devices when they want them.  Should Amazon be providing this service to people who work around the system and grab a “used” license that provides no profit to either author or distributor?  I suppose a rights-transfer fee might be possible, but that would have its own objectors, especially on already inexpensive eBooks.

Maybe it is a bit cynical but I think that if you leave people free to do what they please, there’s a good chance that they will.  Is the current DRM scheme ridiculously restrictive?  Yes.  No Question.  Is the answer to completely do away with DRM and move to a scheme such as the one Stallman suggests, where the only money authors can expect is from pleased readers wanting to anonymously donate to them?  I sincerely hope not.  It’s a pleasant vision that assumes the best of everybody, but in reality it would almost certainly mean the downfall of the Kindle platform and a move away from digital publishing by pretty much everybody wanting to make a career of writing.