Republished: Amazon Kindle DRM Broken

Originally published on 23 December 2009

Amazons Kindle DRM has been broken by an Israeli guy. Quite what will happen next isn't clear though, will Amazon learn the lesson that Apple learnt after DVD Jon cracked the ironically named Fairplay? Or will they move to update and 'improve' their Digital Restrictions Management?

Companies with deeper pockets than Amazon have learnt that DRM is a very bad idea, but ultimately it may not be down to them. Most retailers that use DRM develop sloping shoulders when questioned, it's almost always the Publisher or the Manufacturer that requires the DRM. If this truly is the case then Amazon is in a truly un-enviable position, its suppliers want DRM and its customers don't. At what point does the balance tip in the favour of the customer? Could Amazon decide that it's not worth the development cost of devising a new DRM system, or will the Publishers be able to provide enough pressure to ensure that they do?

Even the publishers must know that DRM is incredibly bad for the consumer, it unfairly restricts what the customer can do with an item that they have purchased. It does nothing to inconvenience professional copyright infringers, and simply makes life hard for the customer (who remembers trying to migrate their iTunes database to a new PC?). Hell, in the case of the Sony rootkit fiasco, that attempt at DRM was even dangerous to the customers computer.

DRM serves one purpose, it allows the publisher to require that you buy one copy of the media for every device you plan to read/play the media on. It makes great business sense to try and force this, whilst screaming at the top of your voice about how 'Pirates' are killing your business. Unfortunately, the business logic begins to evaporate as customers leave you, whether on principle, or because your DRM has made life too difficult.

When people talk of boycotts on the web, you often read comments by naysayers along the following lines "they're a big company, do you think they'll really care if such a small group of people stop buying their products? They wont even notice!" This is a very pessimistic view, it doesn't really matter if they notice at first. Even if a company makes billions a year, if you stop buying their CD's at �13.99 then you have deprived them of some income. They may not notice it, but you are no longer funding their greed. The more people that look at it from this angle, the more likely it is that a boycott will grow to encompass a great many people.

As an example, I do not, and will never own a Blu-Ray player (I didn't buy HD DVD either) because it is a format designed for one purpose - DRM. The HD side of things is a Unique Selling Point designed to entice the customer, but make no mistake it was introduced to try and curb copyright infringement. It also means that to create a Blu-Ray player you need to pay the media studio's a license fee. If you don't, then you're not going to be able to unencrypt the discs. Once you've done that, if someone does crack your Players key, you may well find that the media studios move to block that key. The end result is you have a lot of very pissed off customers!

Of course as a consumer you don't really care about the above example, but it also effects you. If you own a Blu-Ray player (whether software or hardware) and someone discovers the player key for that make and model, the next time you play a new Blu-Ray movie, you could well find that your player disables itself. Not only will it fail to play the new disc, you'll also be unable to play all the discs you have already bought. Your Blu-Ray player will be useless, if it's a hardware player then you effectively have a very expensive door stop.

The Blu-Ray Consortium have already done this once. Luckily it was a software player who's key was discovered, so existing customers could upgrade once the manufacturer had made a few changes. But it still generated extra work and hassle for everyone who had that software player.

They also have the power to disable discs, the fact that you shelled out good money is completely irrelevant, if they feel the need you wont get a say. As far as I know, this hasn't happened yet, but it is possible.

And that nice HDMA cable you had to spend out on? You needed that because they decided that your HD TV needed to contain a certain chip to watch Blu-Ray in High Definition. If that chip isn't present, then although your TV is HD Ready, the player will still send the movie in a lower quality (admittedly slightly higher than Standard Definition).

Although I've made Blu-Ray a major point, there are a number of products that are crippled by DRM. Take a quick search on the internet and you'll soon find a long list, DRM pops up everywhere. The nice new version of Windows you bought is full of it (as is Vista for that matter). Even DVDs contain a form of DRM (DVD CSS), athough this was far more 'consumer friendly' than on later formats. DVD CSS was broken by DVD Jon quite some time back which is why you are able to rip DVD's to your hard drive for more convenient viewing.

Incidentally did you know that by ripping that DVD you are breaking the law? You don't even need to distribute a copy, you've already broken the law. That's right, as well as forcing DRM onto the consumer, the media moguls managed to get laws passed to support their greed. In both the UK and the US it is illegal to 'circumvent technical measures' and by bypassing the DRM on the DVD you have done just this. Worse, the combination of DRM and this law actually means it is illegal to watch DVD's on some computer systems!

As with Blu-Ray the manufacturer of the player needs to be licensed by the media moguls, and any workarounds are illegal. With more than a little bit of cunning the media companies have stolen your right to do what you wish with products that you have bought! They even go so far now as to try and convince the consumer that we don't actually 'buy' software/music/media but in fact 'license' it. By setting a precedent of these items being licensed rather than owned, the media companies believe they can set more or less any requirement. If you breach their terms, they will remove your ability to use the item that you paid for. Even if you consider this to be fair, keep in mind that they hold all the cards, they can change the requirements at any time, and if you object to the new 'rules' then they can easily stop you using that item. Would you sign up to, and pay for a contract knowing the other party could change the entire thing at any time with no deferral to you? So why should you have to do that to listen to music or use software?

It's not just home equipment that allows DRM to ruin peoples day. Recently 3D Screenings of Avatar were cancelled in Germany. Why? Because the key supplier failed to supply the cinemas with enough keys to decrypt the DRM. In their infinite wisdom the media company decided to require one key per copy of the film, per film projector and for each movie server. There are always leaks, but what real benefit is there in sealing the film to this paranoid level? The cinema's effected ended up having to offer the would-be customers the chance to get a refund, or to watch the film in 2D.

Part of this incident has been blamed on the cinemas showing the film across multiple screens, therefore using up a larger number of keys that was strictly necessary, but had the film not been encumbered with DRM it would not have been an issue. Had the media company responsible had the foresight to realise that most multiplexes would show the film across a number of screens, the issue could also have been avoided. Human error is a factor that cannot be eliminated, but the existence of DRM massively magnifies the impact that a simple error can have.

So what is the answer? Boycotts can be quite effective, but as noted above they can often lack the inertia to make any real difference. This doesn't mean you shouldn't boycott DRM encumbered items, in fact you should. Although you may lack popular support, by boycotting DRM you are protecting yourself from the numerous disadvantages. If you buy a CD and it's DRM encumbered, if you buy a DVD that wont let you skip the adverts, then return it and insist on a refund. Explain exactly why you are returning it, and consider e-mailing the manufacturer to tell them the same.

Boycotts will become more common as people become increasingly aware of it, so spread the word. The more people start boycotting DRM the quicker the media companies will realise that it is harming their business. If you want to buy music online as an MP3 use a site like 7Digital which is DRM free (except for a couple of WMA's). If you use a store that has two versions available - High quality with DRM and DRM free but at a lower quality, contact them and explain that you want the higher quality MP3 but are not willing to download a DRM encumbered file. Especially if they are charging more for the DRM free version, most of us are willing to pay (a little) more for a DRM free version, but not if it has been created at a lower bitrate. This practice helps to create the myth that DRM leads to better quality digital downloads.

Don't settle for something that isn't worth what you paid for it, DRM unfairly restricts consumers rights and has been forced onto an unwilling public in order to feed the media moguls greed. It's time that we all took a stand and reminded these monoliths that they operate in a market that depends on the customer. We are the customers, it is our money that they want spent so perhaps they should try offering something that benefits us.

If you want to keep up to date with the fight against DRM, I strongly recommend that you take a look at Defective By Designt and consider signing up to their mailing list. They regularly arrange protests and demonstrations to make the perpetrators of this Consumer Crime realise that their actions will not be tolerated.