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After Hours

Hacker Breaks Kindle's Proprietary E-Book Protection

Hacker Breaks Kindle
December 23, 2009 3:04PM

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Amazon's dominance of the e-book market with a proprietary format has been challenged by a copyright hack that allows its content to be shared. A hacker has even broken the format on Amazon's free Kindle for PC application. Breaking digital-rights management could force Amazon to follow Apple, Inc.'s lead and offer DRM-free content.

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Internet retailer Amazon.com had all the luck in getting its family of proprietary Kindle e-book readers into the hands of consumers while its rivals were faced with delays, but its luck may have turned. The Kindle's copyright protection has been hacked.

An Israeli hacker who goes by the name Labba says he has been able to break the Kindle's digital-rights management protection, allowing its electronic books to be viewed on non-Kindle devices.

A U.S. hacker has also reportedly created a program called Unswindle that converts books stored in the free Kindle for PC application into other formats.

DRM prevents making copies of DVDs and music downloaded from online stores, blocks users from recording TV programs, and much more. DRM is backed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In this case, DRM prevents Kindle users from copying the 390,000 books and 100 newspapers and magazines available through Amazon.

Hacking Help

Labba didn't work alone. The hacker recruited help on an Israeli web site, hacking.org, according to published reports.

Igor Skochinsky, a hardware hacker, had already provided clues to cracking Kindle's DRM. On his blog, Skochinsky said he has known for some time that Amazon's proprietary AZW files were actually Mobi files, and Amazon didn't share information that would allow people to buy encrypted Mobi books for Kindle.

"Well, I've discovered the algorithm used to generate the (Mobi) PID and was able to use it on Fictionwise, but there was another catch," he wrote. "AZW files have a flag set in the DRM info which is not present in books bought from other vendors. After fixing that, I could read the book on Kindle."

This is bad news for Amazon, which has dominated the e-reader market. Amazon not only pushed sales of Kindle, it has also offered free expedited shipments of the devices to get them into the hands of consumers in time for Christmas.

Amazon hasn't responded to the Kindle DRM hack, but the company will likely issue a patch and follow up with an update for the device.

Closing the Loop

Amazon may close the door on the DRM hack, but other hackers will likely attempt a hack again, observers say.

Eventually, Amazon may follow Apple's lead. After launching its iTunes Store, a hacker broke Apple's DRM protection. As a result, Apple closed the security hole, only to be hacked again. Apple now offers DRM-free music on iTunes.

Most recently, Apple had to deal with Chinese hackers who were able to solve Apple's algorithm for generating and accepting iTunes gift cards. The hackers sold higher-denomination gift cards online for much less than their value.

Right to Share

While some companies go to extreme lengths to protect the information they offer, as Amazon did with its Kindle DRM, others say the content is meant to be shared.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports public digital rights, said DRM technologies do nothing to stop copyright pirates and instead interfere with fans' lawful use of movies, music and other copyrighted works such as books.

Mike Kent also contributed to this story.

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