Copyright Writing

My DRM-free self

O’Reilly now has DRM free versions of some of its book available for the Kindle. Among the books are my own Painting the WebLearning JavaScript, second editionPractical RDF, and Adding Ajax.

O’Reilly has been offering DRM free versions of the books at the O’Reilly site, but it’s only been lately that authors have been able to provide DRM free books at Amazon. Why is this important? Because all you have to do is change the book’s extension to .mobi to read the book on your Sony or other MobiPocket capable eBook reader. In other words: Some Amazon store books can be read on other eBook readers other than the Kindle, iPhone, and iTouch.

Teleread and MobileRead have started a campaign to make these DRM free books more easy to find. If a book is DRM free, just tag it “drmfree” at the Amazon site. It tickled me to be the first to tag my own books.

My books being offered DRM free doesn’t change how I feel about copyright. I still believe in the importance of copyrights. My books are still copyrighted, at least until the publishers and I decide the time is ripe to release them into the public domain. I am dependent on the royalties I make from my books, and I lose money through piracy of my books. But I have never believed in DRM, which only hurts the legitimate owners.

I’m currently working on my first self-publishing book, which I’ll be releasing as a Kindle, as well as in other formats. Regardless of how I distribute the book, not one version of the book will have DRM.



Being a Kindle owner, I’ve been following, and involved in, many discussions related to the recent DMCA take down notice that Amazon served on the eBook friendly site MobileRead. I’m too tuckered from arguing in other forums to say much now. At this time, all I’m going to do is list out pertinent articles and forum threads, and write my first impressions of the events.

The take down notice was first detailed in MobileThread

As some of you may already know, this week we received a DMCA take-down notice from Amazon requesting the removal of the tool and instructions associated with it. Although we never hosted this tool (contrary to their claim), nor believe that this tool is used to remove technological measures (contrary to their claim), we decided, due to the vagueness of the DMCA law and our intention to remain in good relation with Amazon, to voluntarily follow their request and remove links and detailed instructions related to it.

A quick backgrounder: is a small Python script allowing you to derive a Mobipocket-compatible personal identifier (PID) for your Kindle reader. This PID in itself has nothing at all to do with reading any copyrighted content. It is only used to make legitimate e-book purchases at stores other than Amazon’s.

We believe in the freedom of speech and we encourage you to continue expressing your views and thoughts on tools like We only ask you not to provide any how-to instructions, source codes and/or links for obtaining

Several people and organizations have weighed in on the issue, including Slashdot, BoingBoing, CNet and so on. You can find links to the articles in TechMeme, but I also linked stories as I found them in a thread I started in the Kindle owner’s forum at Amazon. Current entries to that thread: 127 and counting. Some interesting, and differing, opinions are shared.

What puzzled a lot of people is, why now? The application that Amazon is unhappy about,, has been out and in use, and discussion item in Amazon forums since December of 2007. So, why now, and why serve a DMCA on MobileRead, rather than Google Apps, or other sites were the software is actually hosted?

A little hunting around found the most likely cause of this current foo-flah: another thread at MobileRead. The timing of the thread and the DMCA seem too close not to be related.

I’m not rigidly against DRM, though I would be happy to have my own books DRM free. (Painting the Web is available without DRM at O’Reilly.) As we all know, DRM typically harms legitimate owners, and does little to prevent piracy. Regardless, I can understand the use of DRM…but it should be based on a consistent standard the industry shares, so that if I buy a book at one eBook store, it will work with my Kindle; and an Amazon eBook will work on devices other than Kindle. Anything else is death to the industry. The industry is just too new, and too small, to be fragmented by such walls.

The Kindle is based on the MobiPocket Mobi digital format. Because of this shared format, Mobi books will work on a Kindle. However, Mobi books also have a PID-based DRM system that requires you provide your device’s PID if you want to buy a book. What does is provide Kindle owners that PID. It does not bypass the DRM; it doesn’t circumvent copyright—it just gives us the ability to buy books in other stores.

More importantly, libraries are now incorporating digital book loans, but they’re based on DRM-enabled PDF files, or DRM-based Mobi books. If we want to “check” a book out at our libraries for use on our Kindle, we have to use both kindlepid, to get the PID, and kindlefix, to set a flag so we can read the book on our Kindles.

The book loan still expires at the end of the loan program. We can still only read the book on the given device. We’ve not broken either law or copyright or DRM. And since Amazon refuses to work with libraries, about the only way Kindle owners will have access to library loans is the use of this software.

The DMCA move by Amazon was especially disappointing to me, personally, because one reason I felt comfortable with buying a Kindle is that I trusted Amazon, I trusted Jeff Bezos, not to keep the Kindle jailed forever. I assumed that over time, the company would open both the Kindle, and the book store. I believed that what Amazon did for MP3s, it would eventually do with eBooks. Well, I can see with the DMCA, my trust was misplaced. I guess one can never get too old to still be naive.

I still like my Kindle, but I’m no longer comfortable buying books for it from Amazon. Luckily there are free ones that Amazon “allows” me to load on to the Kindle. As for new books, I’ve returned to paper books, via library loans. Too bad, too, because my library just doesn’t carry all the books I want.

I’ve also taken copious notes from the books I do have on the Kindle, for that day when the device breaks. I strongly doubt I’ll ever buy another eBook reader, much less another Kindle. Not until the industry gets its act together.

Like I said, more some other time.

Copyright Photography

Appropriate the visual

Jonathon Delacour has an interesting writing on appropriation art, the controversy about the Obama HOPE poster, and Walker Evans. I must admit to being mostly ignorant about appropriation art, where the artist takes another work and either creates a variation of the work, as Shepard Fairey did with the HOPE poster; or actually makes a direct copy of a work, as Sherrie Levine did by taking photos of Walker Evans public domain photos, claiming the works as her own, and then applying her own copyright.

Leaving aside all other issues, the legality of such appropriation is based on whether the new work is derivative or transformative. For instance, Picasso is consider an early appropriation artist, because he would appropriate things he found in the everyday world for his work. However, the materials Picasso appropriated were not works of art themselves, but everyday things that he would then transform into original creations of art. I had an uncle, heavily inspired by Picasso, who was also an appropriation artist, as he would take clothes hangers, paper, and paint, and create statues—one of which I, in the midst of my plebeian youth, threw away, thinking it junk.

I suppose that Fairey’s work could be considering transformative, too, as he took a photograph and transformed it into a painted, or more likely photoshopped, effort. Tom Gralish is the person who helped uncover the original photo behind the transformed work, and as the images he display demonstrate, Fairey used the same technique more than once with more than one photographer’s effort.

Fairey's appropriated art

The AP, who hired the photographer, Mannie Garcia, to take the photo used in the HOPE poster, disagrees that the “appropriation” of the photo is fair use, and have contacted Fairey to make arrangements (though there is some debate that the AP does own the photo copyright). It would seem that Fairey, himself, didn’t even know whose image it was he used until he was contacted. I found his ignorance of the original photographer to not only be offensive, but sublimely arrogant. If one is going to appropriate another artist’s work, shouldn’t one at least take a moment to discover the name of the artist? Evidently, to Fairey, not. To Garcia, his photograph is art; to Fairey, it’s raw material, the equivalent of a coat hanger.

I am not an expert in copyright law to know whether Fairey’s work is a violation or not, nor am I necessarily in sympathy with the AP, though I will watch the ongoing story with interest. However, I don’t have to be a lawyer to know that Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Walker Evans work is legal, but morally reprehensible.

In Levine’s case, she took photographs of Walker Evans photos that were in the public domain, printed them out for a show titled After Walker Evans, and then copyrighted her photographs of the photographs. Since the Evans photos were in the public domain, she could do what she wanted with the images.

I gather, according to Jonathon, she had some postmodern feminist story to accompany the work that sounded all grand and really brainy, I’m sure, but strip away all the mental cotton candy and what you’re left with is a photographer exactly duplicating another photographer’s work, and then attaching her name to it.

Applaud, the postmodern Athena is avenged on the paternalist Zeus. As others have writtenLevine’s disrespect for paternal authority suggests that her activity is less one of appropriation: she expropriates the appropriators. How could I, as a feminist, not applaud such an act?

What if we were not talking about visual art, though? What if I were to take a work by another representative of paternal authority, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, type it exactly as written into my computer, sign my name as writer, convert the document into Amazon’s Kindle format, copyright the effort, and sell it at Amazon? According to both Levine’s viewpoint and this modern variation of appropriation artists, not only would such be acceptable, I should be praised

In 1979 in Sherrie Levine rephotographed Walker Evans’ photographs from the exhibition catalog “First and Last.” Her post-modern assertion that one could rephotograph an image and create something new in the process, critiques the modernist notion of originality (though it creates an alternate postmodern originality in the process.) In dialogue with the theorist Walter Benjamin, who explored the relationship of reproduction to artistic authenticity, the reproduction becomes the authentic experience.

Yet, it is likely that those who would praise Levin and her work, would condemn me and mine. She is artist, I am vile plagiarist. A plagiarist easily caught, because the original story is so well known.

If the work of Twain is too well known to be vanquished by a single act of unattributed duplication, then what of our replication of syndication feeds, or weblog posts? The casual page such as those I quote from in this story? Would our writing not be like Mannie Garcia’s photo, in the public sphere but not well known enough to have self-defense against such deception?

I don’t know of any writer who would willingly allow their writing to be duplicated and attributed to another, without even a semblance of a nod to the originator, but we don’t have the same problem with visual works, such as photographs. As Jonathon states, We are in a hall of mirrors, but mirrors that shatter with text. If one can’t take the concept from one artistic medium to the next, then the concept is suspect, the art tainted.