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What MLB Fans Can Teach eBook Readers about Kindle and Other...

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MLB Makes Fools out of Fans

In 2003, Major League Baseball offered game footage for fans to download to their personal computers for $3.95 each. Red Sox fan, Allan Wood, took advantage of the digital offerings and purchased nearly $300 worth of digital video game footage. The video was downloadable to the computer and viewed via Windows Media Player. The video was also protected with a “DDS” system of digital rights management (DRM). As we have talked about before, DRM is a software key that controls use of a digital item. A digital item (with DRM) is “locked” and certain “keys” are given to the user to unlock and then use the digital item.

In 2007, MLB decided to abandon the DDS system of DRM, essentially it changed its locks and never told any of the users about it. When Wood (and presumably other fans) went to view past footage that he had paid for and archived on CDs, he was informed he didn’t have the right license any longer.

The purchase agreement stated that the license to watch the downloaded video would “exist forever” on the machine that first played the video:

7. Do I have to obtain a license every time I want to watch the downloaded video?

No. When you first try to play the video, a license will be distributed to you and stored by the player. Unless manually deleted, the license will exist forever and will be used when you try to watch the downloaded video on that machine.

Unfortunately for Woods and all other purchasers of previous game footage, MLB’s change in DRM systems meant that they would have to repurchase the video footage under the new DRM scheme. Woods received no positive response from MLB for over six months. It wasn’t until the story was picked up by the major tech sites such as Boing, Boing, Techdirt and ArsTechnica, that MLB made a change. When contacted by ArsTechnica, MLB promised that it had remedied the situation for all but a few games: post season games. That’s right, any post season footage will have to be repurchased although MLB says that it will remedy the post season footage at some unspecified date in the future.

Can You Rely on Amazon?

One of the things that all the reviewers of the Kindle agree upon is the ease of use of delivery of content. Because of the built in wireless access, Kindle readers can download books without being tethered to a laptop. The problem is that these books are locked with Amazon’s special key. The ironic thing is that readers who purchased Mobipocket books are in a similar situation to the MLB fans.

Amazon purchased Mobipocket in 2005. Mobipocket requires a special software key to be entered onto computers or personal digital assistants or smartphones before a mobipocket book can be read on it. In late 2007, Amazon decided to change its software key. Yes, Mobipocket books are still readable on existing devices, but they are not readable on Amazon’s own Kindle. Because the Kindle does not allow readers to enter in their own software key (which was previously purchased from Amazon as Amazon owns Mobipocket), Mobi books that are encrypted cannot be transported to the Kindle. Those books would have to be repurchased. No refunds will be issued either, as far as I know.

I certainly don’t have any confidence that Amazon won’t change the locks in the future or simply do away with these digital devices. I have weathered one Amazon deletion of digital material. Sometime in 2006, after Amazon had purchased Mobipocket, it stopped selling and supporting its previous digital sales (I had spent several hundred dollars there on books).

We are working on removing Microsoft and Adobe format e-books from Amazon.com, and soon they will no longer available for purchase. If you previously purchased an e-book on Amazon.com or purchase an available item before the availability changes, you will still have access to it through Your Media Library in Your Account up to 30 days after the purchase date.

As part of our commitment to provide the best customer experience possible, we are now supporting the Mobipocket format. We remain committed to e-books and encourage you to visit www.mobipocket.com where you can purchase and download tens of thousands of the most popular titles.

The fact that Amazon does not support its existing Mobipocket customers makes me very leery about the future of not only Mobipocket but its intentions toward ebook readers. Is past just prologue to the abandonment of yet another format?

The Prohibitions of the DMCA

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act went into effect in 1998. It is one of the most anti consumer pieces of legislation passed in recent memory. It has broad reaching effects, but ones pertinent to ebook readers are as follows:

  • It is illegal to develop, promote, sell, or even giveaway software or hardware that will circumvent the software locks that copyright owners and distributors place on digital items.
  • It is illegal for a purchaser to use software or hardware that circumvents the software locks, no matter how unfairly the purchaser is treated in the end.

While it is true that a digital item can be copied easily, as opposed to a physical item, the current system robs the consumer of the traditional unfettered right to use a purchased item. For example, a book that I purchased at Borders can be traded, re-sold, given away, or even bequeathed in a will. Under the DMCA, I am not allowed to do any of those things with the ebooks I have purchased. If I died tomorrow, the strict interpretation of the law would require Ned to destroy all my digital books and neither he nor my daughter could make use of them (or hope that the laptop or ereading device that reads those books lasts forever).

Would You Stand for Your Books Being Taken Away?

If the DMCA applied to physical objects, Barnes and Noble could come to your house and say “We’re not selling mass markets anymore so you have to give all your previous purchases back.” Would you ever buy books from Barnes and Noble again? If you heard of this happening to someone else, would you buy books from Barnes and Noble?

To complicate matters, the current digital system is so complicated that David Rothman of Publishers Weekly and Teleread.org calls it the Tower of e-Babel. It’s as if publishers decided to publish books in code. In order to read the books, you had to buy a code breaker that cost anywhere from $100 to $400. Not all the books are published in all of the codes and sometimes the code changes or a new code is added, requiring the purchase of a new code breaker. If you lose the code breaker to the books you’ve already purchased, you’d have buy the books again. Only one code breaker per household.

No consumer would stand for the restraints of use on physical devices, but we do not seem to mind it when it comes to digital devices.

Fool Me Once, Shame on Me

As for me, I’ve been taken by Adobe’s DRM scheme in the past. My original ebook purchases had all been in Adobe. I read them blithely for about 3 years and then I upgraded my computer. I tried to re-activate the Adobe Reader on the new computer but because I had done fresh installs on my old computer a few times, Adobe believed that I had used up all my activations. I eventually found an Adobe customer service number and called. The technician attempted to help me and eventually re-authorized my new computer but the re-authorization didn’t allow me to read my old purchases. The only course of action was to contact my vendor and redownload the ebooks. Only the vendor where I had purchased the items was no longer in business and I could not redownload the ebooks. I was forced to repurchase them.

I have not bought another Adobe book since that time and I will never buy another. Adobe might come out with the best ebook reading software ever and the best ebook reader ever but I’ve been burned badly by Adobe and I just won’t go back. I’ve learned my lesson about DRM’ed books and it was a costly one.

I hope that those new ebook readers don’t learn the same hard lesson that I have. We readers need to be more vocal, not just about getting books out in ebook format, but calling for an end to the DRM system as it stands. There must be some kind of DRM that would allow portability of an ebook; that would strike a balance between the fear of piracy due to the ease of digital reproduction and the right of consumer to dispose of a product which she rightfully purchased.

There is an organization to which a number of publishers and players in the ebook industry belong to and that is the IDPF. I can’t help but wonder if enough of us email IDPF with our desires of a better, less draconian ebook future, that positive change can occur and the MLB fan lesson will become an urban legend rather than the impetus which abrogates digital purchases.