Rights of Monopoly, Rights of Access: The Kindle

We’ve posted a bit about cultural resources and made a brief pass at natural resources, here’s a little something on the third leg of our triumverate; the privitization of technological resources.

A recent post on BoingBoing provided updates on the copyright struggle surrounding the text-to-speech capabilities of the Kindle e-reader. At the core of this issue is a claim by the The Authors’ Guild that Kindle’s ability to read e-books aloud violates the copyright of those books by supposedly generating a derivative work. It should be the books’ copyright holders, they argue, that get to create and (most importantly, of course) sell audio versions of these works. Advocates for the visually impaired (and those with other reading difficulties), on the other hand, argue that disabling this feature essentially cuts them off from their only avenue of access to the device:

The simple option to have books read aloud to them—even by a computer—is an enormously powerful asset to those with a whole spectrum of difficulties, including dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and linguistic impairment. English as a Second Language students (whose immersion is, often, primarily aural, and only later textual) also receive the obvious benefits of word-sound association.

The Author’s Guild seeks not only to prevent further cultural participation by reading-disabled people, but also to deny them the benefits of scientific advancement by blocking an existing technology from performing its intended role—and doing all this while demanding remuneration for a capability they themselves have done nothing to promote. [Knowledge Ecology Notes]

Furthermore, they claim that text-to-speech renditions of e-books are by no means of the same quality as audiobooks and thus should not challenge the market for such products.

So there is obviously an battle over cultural resources here: the Authors Guild think their constituents have a right to economic monopoly over any version of the books they wrote and visually impaired readers believe that they have the right to take advantage of technologies that provide them with access to the same set of cultural resources that seeing people have (they would, after all, still be paying to download the books to their Kindles). But what I want to talk about is the issue of technological resources developed once Amazon (seller of the Kindle) decided to cave to the Authors’ Guild and remotely disable the text-to-speech capabilities of e-books that customers had already downloaded.

In effect, the servers that every Kindle must connect with in order to access content are able to recognize a “text-to-speech flag” on a given work and remotely enable or disable that function. And if Amazon has the ability to remotely disable one function of the product that you have already bought, what’s to keep them from disabling other features. As Cory Doctorow points out on BoingBoing, Amazon has so far not disclosed “what other flags are lurking in the Kindle format: is there a ‘real only once’ flag? A ‘no turning the pages backwards’ flag?”

As with any DRM technology, there are grassroots countermeasures (for instance, an application called Mobi2Mobi) which allow the user to flip these switch themseles, but people with the tech saavy to employ them are certainly going to be a small subset of the overall Kindle user base.

The fact that Amazon was able to remotely disable an aspect of the Kindle’s functionality speaks to one of the key issues in the privitization of technological resources, which is that notions of ownership change dramatically as we transition from analog to digital technologies.

For example, I buy a book, that copy of the book is mine. I can read it aloud to whomever I choose (as long as my reading sessions aren’t a commercial enterprise) or lend it to others or even sell it. If I buy a Kindle and then purchase an e-book through it, my relationship to the “things” I have paid for is more complex. I may own the physical device, but through its End User Liscence Agreement (EULA) I am bound by any number of ownership claims that Amazon retains (for themselves or on behalf of content copyright holders) on the technology. Not owning a Kindle myself, I don’t know what these restrictions are, but they obviously include Amazon’s right to terminate the text-to-speech functionality of “my” e-book. Perhaps I am allowed to sell the device, but not the e-books that are loaded onto it. I could loan my Kindle to a friend, but certainly could not loan an e-book to anybody else’s Kindle.

As a starting place, I want to assert that there are at least two basic reasons why rights consumers maintain for technology have become much more tenuous in the digital era:

1. The technology itself is almost always proprietary. We all know how book technology works and could make some version of one ourselves, but how a Kindle works is Amazon’s intellectual property. In this sense, when it comes to digital technologies, the line between the “technology” and the “content” is much less clear (and sometimes nonexistant) than in the analog world.

2. The act of accessing information of any kind via digital techological devices inherrently means making a copy of that information. Loaning a CD to a friend means I will have to wait to get it back before I listen to it again, but sharing an MP3 could simply means copying the file on to another hard drive. Of course, analog media technologies from the Xerox to the tape deck reduced the level of effort required to copy content (and in some cases this was very scary to media copyright holders), but for pretty much any digital technologies, this act of copying is so intrinsic to the core use of the device that it can be performed with almost no effort.

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