Reading freely

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I like reading. And ever since I bought myself an ereader1 after having to move with a lot of physical books one too many times, I have never regretted that purchase: It is light (and thus I can always have it with me), can hold thousands of books, allows me to read in the dark (as it has background light), has an integrated dictionary, and (given my reading habits) is also more environmentally friendly than buying paper books.

However, not all is well with the current ereading ecosystem.

There is no truly free ereader device (yet)

On the 4th of September 2021, I asked the Fediverse the following questions in my very first post:

I am looking for a privacy friendly, FOSS powered e-reader. AFAIK, there are no mainstream products which qualify. The only options I have found so far - which seem far from stable - are:

Did I miss something? Does anyone have experiences with the devices mentioned above?

Unfortunately, I did not miss anything back then: There (still) is no truly free (i.e. runs exclusively with free software), production quality ereader in sight2.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF)3 has identified the need for a freedom respecting ereader back in 2021 and LibrePlanet volunteers put together some information on what needs to be done to completely free an existing ereader. But for now we’re stuck with suboptimal solutions. Which is a real shame in my opinion, given the educational, cultural, historical, and political importance of being able to read and having access to knowledge.

Freeing your ereader a little bit

Despite the fact that there currently is no ereader device, which can be powered with free software alone, you can increase your degrees of freedom by installing a FOSS reader application on your device. Unlike the default reader applications on the Kindle or Kobo ereaders, which come with a lot of telemetry and other anti-features (e.g. lack of customization options, reduced set of supported ebook formats), the FOSS alternatives take your privacy seriously and are often more performant.

The most widely supported and feature-rich FOSS reader application is Koreader. For certain Kobo devices, Plato is a very good (and simpler) alternative.

To install either of the two reader applications, just follow the instructions in this forum thread - even the official Koreader installation documentation refers you there. In either case, the new reader application will not replace your factory reader app but rather be installed along side it. Feel free to experiment and see what works best for you!

Ebooks and their intricacies

Now to the final piece of the puzzle: the ebooks themselves. Because of the higher complexity of ebooks as compared to paper books (which are amazingly simple if you think about it), there are a few things to consider though.

Formats

Like so often with “standards”, there is a proliferation of ebook formats. If you can choose, stick with the ePub format which is a vendor independent, widely-supported (not by the default Kindle reader app - for obvious reasons) standard. While there have been changes to this format over time, I don’t agree with Brewster Kahle from the Internet Archive when he says that digital books wear out faster than physical ones as long as the format specifications remain open and somewhat concise (so that not only one entity can effectively implement the standard).

Library management

I’d recommend managing your ebooks from a computer, not the ereader itself. Often the ereader is tied to one specific ebook shop (more on that later) and you probably don’t backup your ereader’s storage. It also allows you to use your ereader without it ever connecting to the Internet, thereby stopping all telemetry in its tracks.

If you follow my advice, install Calibre. It is the Swiss Army knife of ebook management software: It stores and categorizes your ebooks, allows you to convert them from one format to another, exports them to external devices (i.e. ereaders), allows you to edit them and their metadata, and can also open them for reading. What functionality does not come out-of-the-box can be added via plugins. Calibre is free software and available for all major operating systems.

Digital Restrictions Management (DRM)

Digital Restrictions Management - euphemistically called Digital Rights Management by publishers - is an abomination. Independent of the medium it is applied to; even if I’ll focus on ebooks in this post.

I won’t go into the details on why DRM is so harmful in this blog post. If you’re really interested, have a look at the Defective By Design campaign, listen to the first episode of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE)4 podcast which features Cory Doctorow in a discussion on DRM, or watch Cory’s “Beyond unfree” talk at libreplanet 2017. In short: DRM uses cryptography to strip power and freedom away from you and instead gives it to third-parties. With DRM, you don’t own the digital goods you pay for, but much rather enter a service agreement in which you buy access to those digital goods - and that access can be cancelled anytime: When Microsoft stopped its ebook store (and the accompanying DRM servers), everyone who purchased books there could not read them anymore. Amazon had the audacity to remove copies of Orwell’s “1984” (of all books!) from Kindle users’ devices.

At least that is the case when we talk about hard DRM which is usually enforced by Adobe through Adobe Digital Editions (which is not even available for Linux based operating systems). What is sometimes referred to as social or soft DRM is not DRM in the strict sense: You actually own a digital copy of the book - it just has been modified to contain identifying information about the buyer to discourage sharing the ebook freely on the internet. Watermarking is a better name for this process and is totally fair in my opinion. This is not the harmful DRM making you dependent on the goodwill of third-parties.

Where to download ebooks?

There are a lot (!) of options on where to get ebooks. I can recommend the following sites for works whose copyright has expired, which are in the public domain, or are freely licensed:

For books which are still protected by copyright, you have to resort to online ebook stores. In practice, that also means that you cannot buy ebooks anonymously (because we still lack a viable way of paying privately online and/or because AFAIK one cannot buy ebooks in physical book stores with a flash drive for example). Personally, I can recommend these stores:

  • Beam Shop for guaranteed DRM-free German language ebooks.
  • yakaboo for ebooks in Ukrainian (or Russian). Unlike Beam, they don’t make an explicit commitment against DRM but I have yet to encounter a case where DRM was used.
  • HumbleBundle sells changing DRM-free ebook bundles.
  • The Pragmatic Bookshelf sells DRM-free ebooks on programming.

You can find more DRM-free ebook sources in the Defective By Design guide, but since I haven’t tried most of them I can’t make a personal recommendation.

Occassionally, you will find a DRM-free ebook in large ebook stores like Kobo, Barnes & Noble, ebook.de or Orell F├╝ssli - feel free to buy those. Just be aware that the vast majority of books there is sold with DRM: DO NOT BUY THOSE5! Go read this wikipedia article instead ;)


  1. In my case the Kobo Aura. It is still going strong after almost 10 years :) On a sidenote: If you want to use a Kobo device without a Kobo account (which was mandatory back when I bought my ereader), you can follow these instructions↩︎

  2. There is the interesting Parabola-rM project which powers the reMarkable e-paper tablet exclusively with free software. While this is promising, this device is a tablet and more than “just” an ereader. ↩︎

  3. While the Free Software Foundation has done (and is still doing) incredibly important work on the topics of software freedom, privacy, and digital rights, it is not able to unite and lead the Free Software movement anymore after reinstating Richard M. Stallman - who, for all his (at times foundational) contributions to the Free Software movement, is simply a bad leader as he is self-righteous and divisive. A complete overhaul of the FSF strategic focus and leadership notwithstanding, the organization is going to fade into oblivion↩︎

  4. Not to be confused with the FSF. While having a somewhat similar focus, the FSFE is a completely independent organization which severed ties with the FSF over the reinstatement of Richard Stallman. ↩︎

  5. Even if there are ways to remove DRM from ebooks. This process unfortunately involves using non-free software and might be illegal depending on your legislation. ↩︎