Molly de Blanc: In 2007, Amazon announced their music store. It would, they promised, deliver DRM-free music to U.S. Amazon users. And they did just that. With much fanfare, they rolled out Amazon MP3, touting music downloads for any device. On their website, they explain what’s special about their music sales. “DRM-free means that the MP3 files you purchase from Amazon.com do not contain any software that will restrict your use of the file.”
In January of 2010, Amazon began to talk about apps for the Kindle. This came as a bit of a surprise. Previously, the proprietary operating system made the Kindle forbidden territory to developers. The Kindle, notable for its DRM-heavy operating procedures, was going to be changed by apps. Changes in the Digital Text Platform brought on by this announcement affected how publishers interact with DRM in the devices by allowing them the chance to sell ebooks DRM-free. According to Brighthand, Amazon claimed that it had always been possible to release DRM-free texts for the Kindle, but the changes made the option explicit and easy.
With the Wall Street Journal’s October 7th confirmation of rumors that Amazon is now going to be opening up an Android app store, one of the first questions I had to ask was about DRM. While Amazon MP3 is pretty awesome, the Kindle itself is not a good example of free use. The rumors of Amazon’s Android App Store were littered with claims that Amazon would be forcing DRM onto apps. Amazon helped clear up rumors when they sent out a welcome packet to prospective developers. All apps must go through the “Amazon App Packaging Tool,” which gives developers the option of “protecting [their] app by utilizing DRM, or distributing [their] app without DRM.”(1)
Amazon will not, in fact, be forcing people to put DRM on their apps, but they’re still giving the option. When they first introduced Amazon MP3, there was a major change in how digital music was being legally distributed. Record labels and Amazon wanted to challenge what was then Apple’s growing monopoly on the market. Individuals and spokespeople for companies like EMI(2) spoke about something inherently wrong in the nature of DRM in music. At the time, Amazon was lobbying record labels Sony BMG and Warner in hopes of selling more DRM-free music.
In trying to find a seemingly happy medium between forcing DRM, as they originally had with Kindles, and supporting DRM-free, Amazon offered DRM-optional, starting with Kindle apps and expanding to their Android App Store. This, unfortunately, is not good enough. Their commitment has been to making money at the expense of the rights of people purchasing from them.
Amazon is backsliding. Amazon MP3 is something special because it’s different. It’s not a perfect solution to digital music sales, because it does not use free formats like Ogg Vorbis. Instead, it sells files in the MP3 format, which is encumbered by patents that have led to court cases against free MP3 encoders. However, Amazon MP3 did take an important step. We didn’t need another digital music retail source—we needed a DRM-free digital music retail source. Similarly, we don’t need another app store, for Android or any other device. We need a DRM-free, free software one.