After Amazon had decided to give authors and publishers the ability to disable the text-to-speech function on any or all of their e-books available for the Kindle 2 (see “The Kindle Controversy: No Right to be a Reader?“), public protests were mostly directed at the US Authors Guild, which had demanded these changes. A “Reading Rights Coalition“, which represents people who cannot read print, even protested outside the Authors Guild headquarters in New York City at 31 East 32nd Street on April 7.
Yesterday, Richard M. Stallman, the founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, critized these protests on the public Access-to-Knowledge (A2K) mailing list as being “directed at the wrong target”. He would rather see Amazon in the focus of critique:
The protestors rightly condemn the Authors Guild for demanding the removal of the screen reader feature, but the way they are doing it makes Amazon look like a victim. Actually it is the main perpetrator.
The reason that Amazon can turn off the screen reader capability is that the machines use non-free software, controlled by Amazon rather than by the user. If Amazon can turn this off retroactively (does anyone know for certain if they did?), it implies the product has a dangerous back door.
In addition, the Amazon Swindle is designed with Digital Restrictions Management to stop people from sharing. It is a nasty product with an evil goal.
While being less bluntly, Web 2.0 pioneer Tim O’Reilly took up a similar stance on the issue in a Forbes article in February, thereby predicting Kindle’s failure within the following two to three years:
Unless Amazon embraces open e-book standards like epub, which allow readers to read books on a variety of devices, the Kindle will be gone within two or three years.
O’Reilly presents successful experiments with open ebooks of his own publishing house and compares Amazon’s restrictive DRM strategy to failed attempts of AOL or Microsoft to control the World Wide Web:
Open allows experimentation. Open encourages competition. Open wins. Amazon needs to get with the program. Or, like AOL and MSN, Amazon will wind up another online pioneer who ends up a belated guest at the party it planned to host.
Speaking with Albert O. Hirschman, O’Reilly – the entrepreneur – suggests “Exit” and hopes market forces will clear the way for open ebooks, while Stallman – the political software activist – relies on the “Voice” of public protests. I am not so sure, which of the two strategies is more promising in this case. As the recent complete abandonment of DRM in the music industry has shown, wide adoption of an (relatively) open format such as MP3 together with compatible and user-friendly hardware devices such as the iPod makes DRM very difficult to uphold. In the market for ebooks, however, the situation is different: while the Kindle somehow represents the “iPod of ebook readers”, it is not compatible with open ebook formats. The longer it takes for developing comparable readers that function in both worlds, the larger the installed base of Kindle users could grow. In this context, protests that put pressure on Amazon to at least support open ebook standards in addition to its own DRM could be decisive and, thus, demonstrate that “Exit” and “Voice” may sometimes be mutually dependent.