Kindle Withdraws from China: The Evil of DRM

Tears of an Era

Kindle China

On June 2 of last year, Amazon China issued a notice stating that it would close on June 30 this year. The announcement caused a huge stir in Mainland China, yet people in Hong Kong generally felt indifferent, not to mention those in Taiwan; I even doubt, more than a year later, now that Kindle China’s online bookstore has officially closed, how many people in Hong Kong and Taiwan are concerned about, or even aware of this event.”

What does it have to do with us?

For the vast number of readers in Mainland China, the melancholic disappearance of Kindle, which set foot in China in 2013, symbolizes the end of an era, with netizens dubbing the event as “Tears of an Era”.

Of course, “amphibious netizens” who use both Mainland China and overseas internet can feel that since Google was forced out of China in 2010, the era of reform and opening up has already started to end. Subsequent events like Airbnb, a host of foreign internet services, and the recent withdrawal of LinkedIn, are all inevitable products of the times. Unconsciously, most of the newly developed foreign internet services in recent years are set by default not to support Chinese users. They will eventually be forced to withdraw due to various issues anyway, it’s simpler to avoid the trouble from the start. It is common for those in China to be unable to use blockchain services such as Ethereum, and for people in “Hong Kong, China” to be unable to use ChatGPT, Bard, and so forth. It’s no longer surprising, but rather it’s the tutorials on using VPN and other tools to use various AI tools that make the news and widely circulate.

In terms of foreign capital withdrawal, Kindle’s exit is just another case, but besides being a business, the Kindle bookstore also symbolizes China’s ideological openness to the world. Hundreds of millions of young people have absorbed a lot of overseas information and knowledge through Kindle. What’s regressing with Kindle’s withdrawal isn’t just the trade relationship between China and the United States.

I understand that no matter what I say, readers in Taiwan and Hong Kong will still feel that the event is far away from them, and they can’t be concerned about Chinese netizens. I fully understand this sentiment. However, what I want to discuss through this event is the evil of DRM, which is universal.

DRM: Locking Digital Files

Simply put, DRM is a technical means of locking digital files, so that they are only available for use by specifically authorized users on specific tools.

DRM is generally understood as the acronym for Digital Rights Management. However, the Free Software Foundation, which has always advocated openness, believes this is misleading and asserts that DRM should be more accurately called Digital Restrictions Management.

The emergence of DRM stems from the differences between the digital world and the physical world. In the digital world, any data and files can be infinitely copied, with copies identical to the originals, no distinguishable differences, almost no cost, and a low threshold for operation.

Therefore, with the spread of personal computers, developers started locking software to prevent users from distributing it privately, forcing users to purchase software from developers. As the internet became more popular, more and more content was distributed through digital media, and DRM technology was gradually applied to various fields such as games, movies, music, books, etc.

Knowledge has a price, and locking digital files to protect intellectual property rights is just like locking the front door to prevent the house from being occupied by others. It all seems natural and very reasonable, except for one point: since the nature of the digital world is different from the physical world, it fundamentally does not hold water to fully transpose the regulations and logic of the physical world onto the digital one.

Rights or Restrictions?

The entire arrangement for Kindle’s withdrawal from China extended over two years. From the announcement of the news in mid-2022, to the halt of hardware sales, the website closure and e-book sales stoppage in mid-2023, by mid-2024 it would no longer allow downloads of already purchased books, would not support sending books to devices, the Kindle app would be removed from the store, and there were many details in between.

Imagine if McDonald’s, with a longer history in China, a larger number of customers, and a larger scale of business, were to withdraw from China. Although the reaction would definitely be bigger, the only impact on customers would be that they can’t eat there tomorrow. There would be no need to deal with the burgers they had bought in the past, after all, they had already been eaten.

Similarly, Amazon’s China online store, which sells physical goods and is unaffected by this event, would not pose complicated issues for users if it were to withdraw from China one day. At most, it would just need to explain the return and maintenance arrangements before it stopped operating. The reason why Kindle China’s closure has been prolonged for over two years, besides the large number of users and numerous books, is essentially due to the evils of DRM.

While DRM seems to provide protection for booksellers, it is fundamentally a restriction for users. Even though they have paid for a book, they must first log into an Amazon account before they can read it on Amazon’s exclusive Kindle devices or applications. To put it bluntly, this is not buying, but renting. Readers have never owned the ‘purchased’ books, but rather Amazon promises they can read them perpetually and unlimitedly in a specific environment. The term of this promise obviously doesn’t last ten thousand years, but as you’d expect, we’ve already signed those complex and tens of thousands of words-long user agreements, and the platform has the final say.

I don’t intend to slander anyone. From my own experience, Amazon’s service is excellent most of the time, Kindle devices are cheap and easy to use, and the platforms supported by their apps are also abundant. The withdrawal from China this time was, to be fair, quite well thought out with over a year’s notice, and then an entire year for users to download files and so on.

However, no matter how caring these arrangements are, they do not change the fact that DRM restricts user rights. If the e-books purchased from Kindle were not locked, if buying books from Kindle was a simple transaction, where the reader pays and receives an open format text, be it epub, pdf, mobi, or whatever, the book belongs to the reader after purchase. If Amazon closes down one day, the user will simply switch to another reader.

Amazon is the largest and best bookstore in the world, yet DRM makes the user experience so poor, not to mention various digital content platforms such as games, videos, and so on. Moreover, beyond user rights, DRM also results in platform surveillance, hindrance of knowledge circulation, and other far-reaching problems.

Even Steve Jobs was Against DRM

Being nobody, and my thousands of words persuading digital book platforms and copyright holders to abandon DRM, regardless of how justified my claims are, will only be seen as the complaints of an ideologically detached leftist. However, if I tell you that even the pro-control Steve Jobs was against DRM, you might be willing to listen.

In February 2007, Jobs exceptionally published an open letter titled “Thoughts on Music,” urging record companies to abandon DRM. At the time, the iPhone hadn’t been launched yet, but Apple had already achieved great success in the digital music market with the iPod. Although competitors like Microsoft’s Zune and Sony’s Connect store were also in the market, their market shares were incomparable to Apple’s. Apple dominated the digital music market, but the record companies held the music copyrights and made the decisions on whether to use DRM.

Interestingly, among the points raised by Jobs, the strongest reason to abandon DRM was not about any philosophy, but rather that DRM had never been effective in curbing piracy. “The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.” Jobs said.

The reason is simple. Assuming that the DRM technologies of platforms like iTunes, Zune, etc., are all impregnable (which is not the case), music was not only sold in digital formats by Apple and Microsoft. The main sales channel at the time was CDs, which never had DRM. Once you bought a CD, you could burn it into digital music like mp3. If CDs were all encrypted with DRM, you could only play the CDs you bought on specific HiFi. A Sony HiFi could only play Sony Music CDs, just like PlayStation, Xbox, and other game devices. It would be a disastrous user experience (which is precisely the case for e-books).

Going to great lengths to lock music with DRM is like spending a lot of money to install secure window grills to prevent theft while leaving the main door wide open. These examples may seem absurdly laughable, but have you noticed that the entire logic still holds if you replace digital music with e-books and CDs with paper books? Publishers and authors always emphasize DRM, believing that as long as e-books are properly locked, piracy can be eliminated. However, they fail to consider that scanning paper books into digital files for piracy has always been a breeze. Not to mention, the e-book DRM technologies of Kindle, Google, Adobe, etc., have all been cracked.

You might argue that apart from mainland China, e-book piracy is indeed not rampant. Please forgive me for speaking the unpleasant truth: if your book has not been pirated at all, it’s not because the DRM is strong, but because the market demand is too small and there’s insufficient incentive for piracy.

Just take a quick stroll around the Z-library and see which of the global bestsellers has not been pirated to know that my words are not biased. Is our DRM technology stronger than those used by these bestsellers? Not to say, as mentioned earlier, it’s not necessary to crack DRM for piracy; scanning paper books will do.

To lighten the mood, let’s interpret the same matter from a positive perspective: your book has not been pirated because most readers are willing to pay for it. Or rather, when everyone is willing to pay for it, it’s not because they have to pay to read it – there are many ways to access the text for free. It’s just the awareness of copyright and the concept of supporting creativity that make readers voluntarily open their wallets and pay for it.

Abandoning DRM for Mutual Wins in the Industry

Two months after Jobs’ open letter was published, EMI became the first to abandon DRM for its music, with the other three major and other record companies following suit.

Ebook lovers haven’t had such luck. In the English book market, Kindle dominates, while in the Traditional Chinese book market, Kobo and several platforms in Taiwan form an oligopoly. The vast majority of books are locked, and users are trapped in one walled garden after another. They can import documents from the open world but struggle to export books from closed systems.

Frankly speaking, most readers don’t mind being locked up by a vendor as long as the platform seems stable and there is a wide selection of books. Even when once-popular internet platforms collapse one after another, as long as it doesn’t affect them directly, they tend to turn a blind eye, believing that it won’t happen to them.

This is incredibly optimistic. Even behemoths like Amazon exit specific markets. What makes us so sure that the platforms we currently use will sustain forever? Book lovers hope to be able to open and read their books 10, 20, or even 50 years from now and pass them onto the next generation. Even if the platform does continue to operate, we need to consider the need for format evolution. Only by having files in a normal, open format can we ensure continuous reading.

Even leaving aside various risks, the freedom to choose to buy from any bookstore and read on any device is a normal user right, it’s not even an ideal. Let’s borrow from Jobs’ open letter, replace “music” with “ebooks”:

Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free books encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any reader can read books purchased from any store, and any store can sell books which are readable on all readers.

The primary function of eBook DRM is to safeguard Amazon’s monopoly in the market, it doesn’t help the publishing industry reverse its decline, but merely destroys user experience. Unlocking eBooks not only drastically improves the reading environment but could also expand the entire eBook market.

eBook platforms should realize that locked eBooks and e-readers limit readers’ rightful use; publishers need to understand that when readers truly own legitimate eBooks, consumers will not buy less but rather, purchase more. As for authors, they should sympathize that readers buy authentic eBooks not because they can’t find pirated versions to save money, but because they are more willing to financially support you.

Extended readings

  1. Thoughts on Music, Steve Jobs
  2. Launching a Web3 Publishing House in Pursuit of Freedom
  3. 10 years after Aaron Swartz’s passing, the world has become more closed off


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