The Skandle

In November, Amazon won a few good enemies by scrapping public domain texts from Project Gutenberg’s database, wrapping them in DRM, and then selling the books without a cent or a thank you to the project they’re ripped from.

Is this legal? Yes. Is it ethical? I don’t think it is,” commented Project Gutenberg CEO Greg Newby about the maneuver.

In response to this shady practice, and because it’s fun to riff on these things and learn how to make stuff, Skandle buddies ℝ & ⁋ (also of fame) partnered up with me (ӎ) to deliver:

The Skandle

The Skandle is a free software project that uses a scanner and a laptop to bypass Amazon’s DRM — by scanning Kindle pages one by one, cleaning up the images, and converting the file into plain text.

The resulting plain text version of the book can then be modified, adapted, and shared freely. The text can’t expire or be deleted by a private company. It can’t be controlled by obscure terms of service that chip away your rights or try to lock you into a manufacturer’s empire.

Amazon’s Digital Restriction Management (DRM) is a system designed to take away rights you would typically have when reading a book.

Digital Restriction Management

Normally, after you read a physical book, you can give it to a friend or sell it. Not so with a Kindle book. Kindle’s DRM is designed explicitly to prevent sharing. This is a legal and technical battleground. Amazon can remotely delete books from your device, as it did during an infamous 1984 recall.

Amazon uses DRM and a proprietary format (AZW) in an attempt to lock you into its distribution model. It wants you to buy from their ecosystem alone, and it won’t allow you to change providers or move your bookshelf without their approval. The price you pay for this “convenience” is restrictions on your rights and coercion to hand over personal data linked to reading habits and purchasing practices.

The Analog Hole

Computer security systems can be described as a method of delivering a message from a sender to a receiver, while not allowing the message to be read by an attacker. The reason DRM systems aren’t generally effective is because the end user, in this model, is both the “receiver” and the “attacker.” This paradox is demonstrated especially well by exploits of the so-called analog hole.

The term “analog hole” describes the idea at the end of the day, the user has to actually see or hear the content that DRM systems are trying to restrict. No matter how many digital fences are put up along the way, the last stage has to be something that can be perceived by a human being, and thus just as well by a camera, scanner or microphone. For this reason, attempts to close the analog hole end up making content less usable.

The Skandle exploits the fact that Kindle books are easy to read on the screen. And if they’re easy for us to read, they’re really easy for a computer to read.

Our Skandle

We used an HP PSC 2410 and a Thinkpad running Ubuntu 10.10. Decisions were made with portability in mind, so it should run with a little tweaking on plenty of other platforms.

You can check out to see how to make your own.

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