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Copy Protection: Just Say No

Although technically excellent, Microsoft's electronic- book reader enforces some highly dubious restrictions on book buyers, including a kludgy setup procedure. All told, this product has been seduced by the Dark Side.

September 4, 2000 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Longtime Computerworld readers will know I have been an enthusiastic supporter of Microsoft Corp.'s electronic-book projects, including its ClearType font-rendering technology and Microsoft Reader software on the Pocket PC. Recently, Microsoft released Reader for the PC platform, and for the first time I learned the details of the company's copy-protection policy. ClearType's technological brilliance has been overshadowed by an irrational and unprecedented set of restrictions whose fairness is highly questionable.
After a simple 8MB download, nothing else is straightforward. After the setup finishes, you have to "activate" the program before you can purchase electronic books. The instructions say it's a "simple, one-click process that only needs to be done once for each PC." Well, to use the program, you need an account with Microsoft Passport, so I created one. In five minutes, I was back to Reader Activation, and I made that single click.
This brought up what looked like a Reader page but was really a browser window, and then downloaded a "Secure Repository" and an encrypted Activation Certificate that "certifies your copy of Microsoft Reader as being enabled for viewing protected content."
Microsoft then loads information about your system, including a computer hardware identification code. Microsoft says this "respects the privacy of information about your computer hardware" while still giving "access to many premium eBook titles that have been copy protected."
That seemed to be innocent enough. Then I saw this question: "How many computers can I activate Reader on?" Just two, it turns out; if you want more than that, you need additional Passport accounts. Now, with the gloves off, the iron fist is exposed: "However, if you purchase an eBook on a computer where you activated the Reader with your first Passport, you won't be able to read that title on a computer where the Reader was activated using your second Passport."
While this sort of limitation has technically been a part of end-user license agreements for years, it has been infeasible and politically difficult to enforce such constraints.
Now the limit can indeed be enforced technologically, and the restrictions are far more stringent. They don't even pass the commonsense test. This is exactly as if I had to register my CD players at the music store and, thereafter, I could play my discs on only those two players.
What happens when Computerworld replaces my laptop or I buy a new computer or replace a hard drive, and I can't read the books I paid for?
I visited http://ebooks.barnes andnoble.com/ms_reader to see how electronic books were priced. I compared prices for paperback, hardcover and



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