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Why I Won’t Buy Today’s E-Books

A stack of old books

I’m a huge believer in having control over content that I purchase. I refused to use the iTunes Store, which otherwise provided the best online music experience, until the songs were available without the DRM restrictions hitherto demanded by the rights holders. I still prefer the humble DVD[1] to other ways of getting video which are bound by the artificial (and ineffective[2]) restrictions demanded by the rights holders.

I was interested to read Diane Coyle’s assessment on many of the shortcomings of e-books. I’m not a big reader myself, but books, electronic or otherwise, are an important part of society and of culture — and I too share some concerns that today’s e-books systems fail to offer important functionality that analogue books have had for generations.

Sharing, lending and borrowing of paper books is an important part of the whole book experience. Unfortunately, it’s something that is either obstructed entirely by today’s commercial e-book systems, or is an optional (and unavoidably platform-specific) feature that the publisher can refuse to offer on a whim.

Diane Coyle’s observation on this situation:

You can’t share books on a device. I can’t even get e-books I bought on one device onto another device I own, although no doubt one of my domestic IT support staff (sons) could do it for me. I certainly can’t read the e-books my husband downloaded because he’s onto his next e-book on his iPad. E-books torpedo domestic and friendly sharing.

Multiple, competing proprietary standards for reading books, where users have no ability to move their content from one format to another, is a really awful idea. We are inclined to accept this kind of incompatibility in newer media forms until one format wins — Betamax and VHS, HD-DVD and Blu-ray — but there’s never been incompatibility between owning hardback and paperback books, for example!

The irony is that there are open, standard formats for e-books, like EPUB. It is, once again, the fault of the DRM restrictions demanded by the rights holders, and the incompatibilities that they necessarily introduce, that lock users into one technological ecosystem or another.

You can’t cut and paste quotes from an e-book. Their makers are so paranoid about “intellectual property theft” that to quote from an e-book on this blog, I have to retype the whole thing.

Yet again, it is the DRM restrictions, demanded by the rights holders, that restrict a perfectly legitimate activity, that far from undermining the publishers’ revenue streams, could well to be used to write a review to convince others to buy!

So, Who is Doing Commercial E-books Right?

I can only find one example.

J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore project will offer the Harry Potter series as electronic books for the first time. Books which will be free of DRM restrictions, and hopefully in an open format like EPUB. This makes me very happy.

Why? Because once you have purchased the book, you will perpetually be able to move that file from one format to another as digital formats come and go. You will be able to lend and share, copy and paste and do other activities well within the bounds of what is reasonable and fair.

Will that system be abused to allow people to bypass paying to get the content? Yes. But it would have been anyway.

Treating Pottermore customers fairly and reasonably is likely to inspire loyalty, re-enable the freedoms we have all enjoyed with physical books for centuries and it will set the bar for a better e-book experience. An e-book experience I may finally worthy of superceding physical books.

I applaud Jo Rowling and the organisations involved for having the courage to free their customers of artificial, unfair restrictions on what they can do with content they have purchased. I hope this puts pressure on other publishers to take this step. This has to be the way forward for e-books.

[1] — While the DVD format does, technically, have DRM, it is so weak and so easily bypassed that it is essentially meaningless. ComputerWorld notes that in Finland, it is actually legal to break the DVD encryption, because it is considered so ‘ineffective’.

[2] — While the example I give is, admittedly, for video game DRM and not movie DRM, it’s quite clear that this is universal. Despite Blu-ray’s extremely complicated AACS DRM scheme, breaking this technology and ripping Blu-ray movies is a simple, routine process, automated by many software tools, making its DRM ineffective with ease.

Photo is ‘Books of the Past’ by Lin Pernille Photography, on Flickr. The photo is licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

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