David Pogue Knows Diddly About eBooks, eReaders, or DRM

Earlier today a friend shared a link with me . David Pogue of the NYTimes was pontificating again about ereaders (he's supposed to be a tech columnist) only he kept getting things wrong. My friend wanted to privately grouse about the misinformation he was spreading, but if you know me then you know I tend not to be quiet when irritated.And in this case, I also want to correct the misinformation, and that requires a post.

The column in question came out a couple days ago. It was the second in a series and this one contained David's responses to the numerous reader complaints about the errors in the previous column. David defends his previous statements that you cannot remove DRM nor transfer ebooks from one platform to another (Kindle to Nook, for example).

What I wrote: “When you buy an ereader, you’re committing to that one company’s catalog of books forever, because their book formats are mutually incompatible.”

Sample reader pushback: “Why do you write about things you don’t know anything about? Apparently, you haven’t heard of the free app called Calibre. It converts any e-book format into any other format. If I want to switch from a Kindle to a Nook, I just let Calibre convert my current Kindle library. It’s that simple.”

My reply: It’s actually not, for one towering reason: Calibre can’t convert copy-protected books. It doesn’t even try. And that rules out most of the books people want to read these days: best sellers. Current, commercial fiction and nonfiction. Books by people who are still alive.

Any regular reader of this blog knows what utter BS he's spewing, and so do a lot of his readers. But unlike most moderately well informed techies David missed that detail.

Update: There's debate in the comments about whether calibre can convert DRMed ebooks.  Some commenters are saying that he is technically correct, given that calibre cannot strip DRM until after you install a plugin.

I can understand David making this mistake the first time around, but the second column requires willful ignorance on his part. It's not just that he didn't know something; he had to have actively avoided finding it out. Hell, simply googling "remove DRM ebook" would have been enough to catch his mistake.

What's more, this second column was published mere days after the International Day Against DRM. That was only 8 days ago, so it is more than a little surprising that David never noticed the many discussions on how you could remove DRM from many things (including ebooks).

I wonder if David is a follower of the Dan Rather school of journalism? It would explain his recent columns.


Edit: My friend suggested that I should have been more explicit as to why I remove DRM. Here you go:

I have long taken the position that one should always remove DRM in order to make sure you don't lose your purchases, whether it's due to switching computers, changing to a new ereader, closure of an ebookstore, or if a publisher simply decides to cut off access to the ebook.

About Nate Hoffelder (10607 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

34 Comments on David Pogue Knows Diddly About eBooks, eReaders, or DRM

  1. If DRM, which I as an author am overjoyed Amazon’s KDP provides as a CHOICE, is easily removed, why do you support the anti-DRM movement? Piracy of ebooks is so huge a problem already, why encourage amateurs to join in?

    • I support the anti-DRM movement because the ease with which I remove DRM renders it pointless. I want publishers to stop wasting their money and my time.

      • Nate, you make a fundamental mistake. You assume that because it is easy for you, it must be easy for everyone, rendering DRM pointless. Say it as often as you want, but repetition doesn’t make it true: MOST ebookers do not know how to remove DRM, are confused by the Calibre plug-ins, and simply do not remove DRM. They live with it and accept that they are limited in their shopping.

        Pogue is right and you are wrong. A person who downloads Calibre and expects to be able to convert a Kindle DRMed ebook to an ePub DRM-free ebook will quickly discover that it doesn’t happen.

        Can DRM be removed? Yes. But my father can’t do it. My wife can’t do it. Even using Calibre. Suggest that they find Apprentice Alf’s plugins and you get a confused look and “why bother?”

        • Last week I linked to a set of 1-step tools which remove Kindle, Adobe Adept, and Adobe PDF DRM. Just now I set up the Epub tool again to see how difficult it was to use. It was a bigger PIA to get the ebook from B&N than it was to decrypt it, so I’m sure that even the non-technically inclined could pull it off. They just have to want to bother.

          The only major issue with these tools is that you have to first find out where the ebook files are stored on your computer. Anyone who cannot do that isn’t capable of pirating the ebook anyway, so there’s no need to look them in with DRM.

        • Rich-

          Context is important.

          David Pogue is a consumer technology reviewer, his job is to help consumers.

          The fact most ebookers can’t/won’t remove DRM does not make David Pogue correct in saying that it cannot be done. In fact, it makes him negligent.

          Pogue should be technically capable of removing DRM, and he should be sharing that knowledge (or at least acknowledging it can be done, and stating he believes it is illegal/ immoral to do so) with his readers. Not giving them false intelligence that may lead to them making a purchasing decision against their own best interest.

          If Pogue were some sort of market analyst, whose job was to predict how consumers will behave, his statement would be okay. But he’s not.

        • Initially I too felt “why bother” but finally I got angry and wanted to read the Kindle books I purchased on my Nook and/or Kobo ( I don’t own or want a Kindle and reading books on my desktop screen isn’t working for me). I went to AA’s blog, read up on the procedure and followed instructions to the letter …. but about a dozen of the fifty or so books STILL would not convert to epub! The error told me that they were still “Locked by DRM” Argh! Why why why? Apparently Calibre plug-ins aren’t necessarily always the answer,eh?

      • I want to amend my statement above. I also support the anti-DRM movement because the ease with which I am able to _download_ the pirated ebook renders DRM moot. Pirated content is a mere Google search away.

  2. Also, all you have to do is look to the music and video game worlds and realize that DRM is not a solution to piracy. It is a crutch, a way to scapegoat people and treat them like criminals rather than customers.

    As for the Calibre thing … *technically* Pogue is correct. If you take a DRM laden ebook and feed it to Calibre it WILL NOT open. That is true – and stated in the FAQ for Calibre. So it isn’t correct calling it BS – BUT, as you further note … once you have stepped on the Kindle-to-Nook path, it is trivial to take the entire journey.

    • I’ll grant you that he is technically correct, but my point about willful ignorance is still true. A simple google search for calibre drm will provide the necessary info.

      I think he should have done that search before making the claim.

      • It takes less than five minutes to start from scratch to remove DRM from either Kobo, Amazon, Nook, or Sony’s DRM and you do not need any technical no how to do it. That is how pointless DRM is for these companies. I remove all DRM from my books as soon as I buy them, just so I can put them on any of my e readers and have a permanent backup, which I am actually entitled to under fair use.

  3. Good point about removing DRM.

    I’m gonna layer two other ways that Pogue, and others who buy into the “walled garden” mythology are incorrect.

    1. His initial comments we’re in a review of the NST glowlight. Ever hear of rooting?

    2. Just change your melodramatic attitude. Even if you are somehow incapable of using python or nooter, purchasing an ereader doesn’t “commit you to that companies catalog of books forever” anymore than buying a paper book commits you lifetime of reading on paper or buying a wii commits you to a lifetime of no Halo. You can own two ereaders, or just download an app to read anything your current favorite hardware can’t. To look at the current state of things as anything other than a minor nuisance is simply sunk cost fallacies.

  4. He may not legally be able to mention DRM removal options on the NYT’s website.

  5. Hi all

    I understand the point of view of Mr. Pogue and also understand that no matter how easy is the removal of DRM most of the users think that is not worth it. I understand why the companies use DRM, Amazon sells very cheap Kindles mainly for selling books not for making money selling Kindles, just remember how expensive were in the early days. But where I see a narrow point of view in Mr. Pogue´s arguments is that he is losing the big picture, the technology now is not perfect, is not for all but is the base for improvement in the future. And if we don´t support it and make it work, no matter how flaky is, it will not improve. As an example, I just bougth a livescribe pen, I write a lot in meetings and I forget a lot what was discussed at them. I know that the restriction of using special paper and the special ink cartridges is kind of lame, and actually is not perfect. But is the level of technology that we have today and I strongly believe that by buying it, and using it, in 5 years a better, cheaper pen is going to appear! The same happened with the Palm Pilots, and other so called gadgets.

    Sorry if I bored you with my point of view and sorry for how I redact, English is not my native language.

  6. You have to remember – removing DRM from ebooks (or any other medium) in the USA is ILLEGAL. Yes it’s relatively widespread (amongst the technically inclined but not the mass market consumers), but removing it is completely banned under the US Digital Millennium Copyright act. It’s is illegal to remove DRM regardless of how or why you remove it, it’s even illegal to do it if you own the copyright for the works in question! Just like counter-productive and widely flouted drug laws, under the DMCA people can still go to jail or face enormous fines for creating, using, distributing or even advocating DRM removal.

    That’s why you have to use plugins to remove it with Calibre (and it’s not exactly straightforward to obtain the plugins, lots of Googling is required and many dead links followed), the app would be banned if they included the code to remove DRM in it. Those plugins are illegal in the USA (and several other nations).

    That’s why David Pogue doesn’t want to mention it in his columns, he (and the NYT) might find themselves open to prosecution for advocating or encouraging piracy under the DMCA if he talked about it. Pogue and the NYT are much bigger targets for lawsuits and the authorities than small blogs like this or even Boing Boing, etc.

    • There’s a big difference between mentioning something exists and telling people how to do it. No one expects Pogue to do the latter but his job as a newspaperman requires him to do the former.

      What you propose is a form of censorship so extreme as to defy logic. It would completely defeat the purpose of a news organization and go against everything the NYTimes used to stand for. This is the newspaper that published the Pentagon Papers, after all. If they are now being tripped up by a topic as mundane as DRM then oh how the might have fallen.

      • Valid point.
        But the “new” NYT *has* fallen that low and more so self-censorship is no shock.
        No more than their staunch pro-publisher line in covering the DOJ lawsuit.

        • Actually talking about it is not illegal. If he has an opinion one way or another, then he is free to express it. If you think the thought police in the industry are going to come after a newspaper for expressing a belief, then you are sorely mistaken. Because that would be the irony of it, wouldn’t it?

          Actually if they were going to go after anyone, it would be the little guy. The little guy has no legal fund to fight it. But they aren’t, are they?

          Everyone is entitled an opinion.

        • Except that the NYTimes is a partner to Wikileaks, which is a much more controversial topic and organization.

    • >>>You have to remember – removing DRM from ebooks (or any other medium) in the USA is ILLEGAL.

      Would you like to try that again with some facts?


      >>>Now, in an interesting move, the US Copyright Office’s Librarian of Congress has announced some exemptions to the infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the text of the actual decision is here). This piece of US legislation made it an offence to attempt to get around any ‘technological measure’ implemented to prevent unauthorised copying. The DMCA is very unpopular in many places because, among other things, it allows rights owners to impose restrictions on the use of their content in excess of what copyright law actually allows.

      >>>These new exemptions, though, include one interesting one – it will now be legal in the USA to remove the DRM from an ebook to enable a “read-aloud function or … screen readers that render the text into a specialized format.”

  7. David Pogue writes for the general public who doesn’t have time or interest to install plugins for stripping DRM.I see no reason for him to disclose the workaround kn a venue like the NY Times.

    • The response he got to his previous column would suggest that you’re wrong. A number of readers clearly do have the interest to install plugins.

      In any case, his job here was to inform his readers. Just because the readers might not want to install the plugins doesn’t make it okay for him to ignore their existence.

  8. Most people today want to read bestsellers, as you said. These people are consumer of popular media which cater to group mind. Most of those ephemeral books lack quality and have no lasting value. If they were print books, they would end up in the trash bin, after one reading. It would be a waste of time to break DRM because there would be no need to collect this garbage. Reading these books can be thought as consuming a movie at a theater–you paid, had your thrill and you take nothing with you out the door.

    There is a large group of us readers who do not care to read bestsellers, do not care what is popular, and are very satisfied with all the free quality books that are available. I have been reading ebooks for years and I have never bought a book; I have never downloaded an illegal copy of a book.

    I read your blog and enjoy it but I have no interest in learning to break DRM or hack ereaders. I just want an ereader to work out of the box. I took your tip, a few weeks ago, and bought that kindle 4 at Walmart for $49 ($79 with a 30 gift card). It does all that I need and more. I am not tempted by the ads on their device. Since, I can browse Project Gutenberg through the provided wifi and download direct to the Kindle, I am happy man.

    Many people spend their time hacking these ereaders and trying to play stupid games on e-ink devices. These same people spend an inordinate amount of time with calibre to make a huge collection of ebooks, which they will never read. The real truth is that most people today are not readers–as they are just consumers and collectors of gadgets.

    • I have about 260 books and six e readers. I have bought everyone of my devices and most of books except for the ones given away for free. I strip the DRM because it makes it easier than having to register all of my devices to Adobe and my Barnes and Noble books can be read on any of my readers.

      Just because people collect readers, collect books, and play games doesn’t mean that they do not read. I read on the average 1-2 hours a day. I would probably read more but I also have a full time job and am a parent.

      You should not judge what others read so recklessly. Just because you see no value in something, doesn’t mean it’s true.

      • Many books today are written with the prospective that the author can sell the movie rights. You can easily see there is less character development with the dialogue and scenarios flowing rapidly; there is more violence and more overt sex that does nothing to enhance the characters or the story, only to cater to the prurient taste of today’s media consumers. I find the books of the past much more interesting and intellectually challenging. That is not to say that all these books of previous periods are well written, many of them are also terribly written. Of course, some of the pulp fictions makes no pretense of quality and serve the purpose of quick entertainment of throw away books. Yet, these popular books of today have also the same throw away quality, but pretend to be more.

        There are so many good books available that are free, that I see no reason to buy any books. I do not have to bother cataloging and saving these books; I just delete them because I can easily get them again, for free. I am not about to carry around thousands of books on my ereader—I do not need that many available at one time—a hundred or so does the trick. I have seen ereader owners bragging that they got many hundreds of books on their many readers but spend more time playing that “angry fowl game”. It is similar to the book collector with thousands of books on many shelves but reads few—they only serve as conspicuous consumption, near his more often used TV.

        The Kindle has the advantages of the wifi and 3G to access thousands of free books direct to the kindle from many sources and direct access to the Amazon Bookstore for purchasing. In addition, there is cloud storage for purchasing books. There is even no need to connect the kindle to a computer, as books can easily be sent wireless to the reader and does not use Adobe DRM.

        The e-ink readers are designed specifically to read. I understand some people need and want diversions of these games, as these devices are only suitable for simple graphic games, perhaps word puzzles; hacking them to push games that do not play well, serves no purpose then to say it is done. Further, I find no interest in games of “shot em”, “kill em”, and “chase em”.

        • Most of what you have written is meaningless drivel. You can find many examples of violence and sex in classic books. Many are written for a different time with overly written passages and dialog that is not even realistically written for the time periods that they represent. Be careful when you criticize anything in books. You can always find counters to anything you write. There are simply too many books out there. Not all modern books are poorly written. Not all classics are written greatly.

          The Kindle is not the only e reader with wifi. While they do have 3G and most have gone away from that (There are first generation Nooks with 3G and two Sonys with 3G), I notice the model you purchased is the wifi Kindle. Also, everyone’s bookstore has free classics in it. You can’t keep thousands upon thousands of books on your reader because you purchased the one on the market with the least amount of memory and with no options to add memory to it. But hey, you had a gift card and get to look at ads. I would hate to have ads on my reader directed at me. I tried it out and it is annoying.

          None of my books have adobe DRM on them because as the point of this article, I have chosen to remove it. I also can purchase or get books from any bookstore including yours truly Amazon by removing theirs too and converting.

          There are many good books that you will miss out on by only reading classics that are free. I have read bunches of them and have more on my tbr pile.

          By the way, it is Angry Birds and it is a fun game. So remove your ascot and lighten up and enjoy the world.

          • I used the word “many” to describe books of today not “all” to say they are badly written. I did say that “many”, to say that books of a previous period are also terribly written. You just have to learn to read more precisely. I know the game is “angry bird”–it was meant as a little humor.

            I know that other ereader have wireless. The current Nook does not provide a web browser nor the extensive ways to add books, wireless, as the Kindle. I know I bough the wifi ereader with less storage but it stores enough for me. Also, it does have an internet browser and I can go to other sites, not just Amazon. I can go to Project Gutenberg, Manybooks, Feedbooks etc. and download free books–direct to the Kindle. The Nook only ties into the B&N bookstore.

            You are being deceived in thinking that the Nook does not have ads. The main page of the reader takes up a big space on the bottom with recommended books, WHICH ARE ADS–that is a much bigger space than with the ads on the Kindle screen.

            The point I am making about DRM is that most, not all (read closely), of these current books are not worth the issue of removing DRM and collecting because they are throw away books of poor quality. In addition, the Nook and all the readers that rely on Adobe are hobbled by that terrible DRM system that is very limited as to approved systems. The Kindle use their own system which allows the books to be read, more easily, on other Kindle that you own.

            However, I agree we should do away with all these DRM systems, including Kindle. I do see your reason of you removing DRM–though I do not agree with the illegalities. I am just saying, for myself and many other like me, we do not care because we buy few or no books and the DRM is not really an issue.

    • >>>Reading these books can be thought as consuming a movie at a theater–you paid, had your thrill and you take nothing with you out the door.

      And then a month or three later, you wind up buying the DVD. Metaphor FAIL.

  9. David Pogue updated the article to include the web address of the necessary tools for Calibre.

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