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Amazon invokes DMCA against Kindle e-books from other vendors

Online retailer claims federal law prohibits distribution of a Python utility that lets people use the Kindle to read e-books legally purchased from non-Amazon sources.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
MobileRead.com posted a letter this week that Amazon.com apparently sent regarding alleged copyright violations. This is an excerpt.

When President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act into law 11 years ago, he predicted it will "protect from digital piracy the copyright industries that comprise the leading export of the United States."

The DMCA turned out to be much broader than that. This week, an e-book Web site said Amazon.com invoked the 1998 law to prevent books from some non-Amazon sources from working on its Kindle reader.

Amazon sent a legal notice to MobileRead.com complaining that information relating to a computer utility written in the Python programming language "constitutes a violation" of the DMCA, according to a copy of the warning letter that the site posted. MobileRead.com is an e-book news and community site.

MobileRead.com forum moderator Alexander Turcic said in a post on Thursday that although he did not believe the program violated the law, the site would "voluntarily follow their request and remove links and detailed instructions related to it." Turcic said that, contrary to Amazon's claim, his site never "hosted" the software.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

The author of the software in question, titled Kindlepid.py, is listed as Igor Skochinsky, a hardware hacker who performed a remarkable analysis of the Kindle and described in December 2007 how he was able to gain access to the device.

It's unclear why Amazon waited so long to respond with a legal threat, and why the company targeted MobileRead.com: Skochinsky's original blog post about Kindlepid.py is dated December 2007, and the copy of the Kindlepid.py software hosted at the Googlepages.com Web-page posting site is still available for download at http://skochinsky.googlepages.com/azw-0.2.zip.

Kindlepid.py and a related piece of accompanying Python code don't allow piracy. Rather, they accomplish something akin to the opposite: they allow legally purchased books from other e-book stores to be used on the Kindle. (Amazon owns MobiPocket, one of those stores. Another would be OverDrive.com, which counts schools and libraries as customers.)

In theory, at least, this could threaten Amazon's business model, which provides wireless connectivity through Sprint's EV-DO cellular data network and covers the cost through items purchased from the Amazon Kindle Store. Kindle customers can also e-mail themselves documents to be converted at 10 cents per conversion.

A copy of a MobileRead.com wiki page--now empty--saved in Google's cache says Kindlepid.py allows you to "obtain books from sites that use DRM (Digital Rights Management - encryption) on their books for specific devices. This includes book sellers and public libraries." It provides instructions on how to install and use the software.

MobileRead.com readers with Kindles were not pleased with Amazon. "What this script does is make the Kindle more useful," wrote one reader. "With Amazon using the DMCA to get rid of this, they are alienating their customers and causing prospective customers to purchase a different device."

And the Kindlefix.py code is already being mirrored, including in a post on Slashdot.org.

Section 1201 of the DMCA says: "No person shall... offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in any technology... is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title."

One exception to the DMCA's general rule, however, comes a few paragraphs later. It says circumvention is permissible for "interoperability" of computer programs, with interoperability defined as the "ability of computer programs to exchange information, and of such programs mutually to use the information which has been exchanged."

If Amazon were to press its case against Kindlefix.py, another legal claim could involve reverse engineering, which is prohibited by the Kindle terms of use. They say users may not "circumvent any of the functions or protections of the Device or Software or any mechanisms operatively linked to the Software, including, but not limited to, augmenting or substituting any digital rights management functionality of the Device or Software."

This isn't the only legal spat that's arisen over the Kindle 2. Last month, the Authors Guild claimed that the mechanical text-to-speech converter was a violation of copyright law.