September 9, 2013

Austrian professor builds Lego robot to bypass Kindle DRM


Professor Peter Purgathofer is frustrated with ebook DRM. “The owner isn’t even an owner anymore but rather a licensee of the book,” he says.

An associate professor at the Vienna University of Technology named Peter Purgathofer has built a Lego robot he calls a “DIY kindle scanner,” which uses a MacBook camera to take a picture of each screen of an ebook on a Kindle. The captured images are then converted to text, which is how it gets around DRM. While one part of the robot presses the button on the Kindle to turn the page, the other part of the robot presses the spacebar to photograph the screen, creating a rhythmic automated series of repetitive actions (see video below).

The process is a simple and mechanical way to bypass Amazon‘s digital rights management without illegal software. Cory Doctorow went so far on BoingBoing to say that this method is legal, which immediately broke out into debates in its forums and on Reddit:

The cam snaps a picture of each screen and saves it to a folder that is automatically processed through an online optical character recognition program. The result is an automated means of redigitizing DRM-crippled ebooks in a clear digital format. It’s clunky compared to simply removing the DRM using common software, but unlike those DRM-circumvention tools, this setup does not violate the law.

Regardless of the legality, the project intended to make a statement about the “dramatic loss of rights for the book owner” with the introduction of the Kindle’s propriatary format. In a statement posted along with the video on Vimeo, Purgathofer says:

“This is an art project reflecting the relation of book scanning, copyright, and digital rights management. This is not intended to be understood as an instruction or invitation, but rather as a provocative thought experiment…In 2002, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in an open letter to the authors guild: ‘When someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this.’ A few years later, his company built a device that effectively violates the very ideas he expressed in this statement. The DIY kindle scanner is an art installation reflecting this loss of rights Jeff Bezos first defended for us, but then chose to remove. It also is a statement about the futility of DRM.”

One view in the legal debate about the project is that Purgathofer has managed to expose the “analog hole” in ebooks—“the idea that you could extract the bits from a DRM-locked item when they were rendered out for display and then recapture those bits in a DRM-free format.” But even so, Purgathofer told All Things D that he has only scanned one book as a proof of concept and hasn’t shared the book with anyone because he thinks that would get him into “deep trouble.”




Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.