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.

4 thoughts on “Stallman vs Amazon Kindle: Are eBooks Bad?”

  1. I no way does the existence of a used market harm or hamper the original seller. In fact, the the existence of a used market enhances the value of the new item, because people will know that can always sell it when they finish with it.

    If you think about it, the selection of new books has exploded in the last 20 years at the same time the technology allowed used book markets to flourish. The creation of used markets have never killed off the new markets in any industry I can think of. Are their really less video game choices than 10 years ago? Any problems for new/existing homes or new/used cars? These markets all work with buying and selling used as an option, why not ebooks?

  2. I don’t see that DRM free books would be the end of the publishing industry (especially since there are publishers out there who offer them today, such as Baen)

    I am a heavy e-book user, but I agree with Stallman’s point that e-books should be like any other property, I should be able to sell the e-book to someone else just like I could a regular book.

    the publishers oppose this, but the publishers also oppose used book sales of print books as well.

    software companies are making a similar power grab trying to prevent resale of software (and you mention the game industry as an example. right now this is at the US Supreme Court.

    As for the issue you complain about where the game companies are ‘forced’ to keep providing server-side components for games with no further income, that’s a problem with the game companies business model. If the person kept playing the game themselves rather than reselling it to someone else, the game company would have to keep providing the exact same service, so what is the difference if it’s the same person or a different person playing the game? If they wanted to get paid for providing that server-based function, then they should have included a monthly (or quarterly, or annual) fee for continuing to use this server-based service. But if they did that, it still wouldn’t matter if it was the same person continuing to play the game or a different person.

    I do not agree with Stallman that e-books should be resisted, but he does have a point that with most publishers of e-books we are loosing rights that we should have currently

    remember how the music industry claimed that it was going to be destroyed by digital distribution of music? They went through a phase where they resisted digital distribution, then they went through a phase where they would only allow DRM encumbered copies to be sold, but not they are allowing non-DRM copies to be sold.

    I hope the publishing industry is going to learn faster than the music industry did.

  3. David,

    I agree that going to a DRM-free model would not be the end of the publishing industry. Perhaps I phrased poorly. My intent was to illustrate that the solution we needed was at neither of the extremes. Both restrictive DRM and open distribution with voluntary anonymous payments are schemes that work poorly.

  4. You know, I leant a book to a ‘friend’ who is no longer a friend. I will never see that book again. How many folks have done that before? Clearly, loaning books has its draw backs. Also, you cannot easily loan a book, the paper kind, to a friend half way round the world. Well, you could, but the shipping fees would be significant.

    Amazon has become the modern day Gutenberg. They have really opened up publishing to the world in a novel way. I applaud their efforts. If there are some hiccups along the way, so what? If the conveniences of paper copy books are missing in some ways, so what? Certainly the downsides of paper copy are also present.

    Moving is a challenging thing for me, since I am overseas. Whatever I have must fit within a few bags and within a certain weight. Never before have I been able to move 150 books in a device which is nearly as pleasurable to read as the paper kind into my pocket.

    Hey, there’s room for improvement. The Kindle DX is too expensive (where’s the $200 version, Amazon? so that images can be displayed more conveniently, not to mention tech books which often have large pages). But, that’s evolution for you. I’m sure that in about 2-3 years, that’ll be possible.

    Amazon, as much as a retailer can, has redefined the way we handle and get literature. They have opened the market up to the general public in a way that has never existed before. Any writer can create an account and sell their ebooks and make a living now without buying big pieces of equipment. So, for whatever downsides there are with ebooks and Amazon, the upsides far outweigh them.

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