Why We’re Here
Earlier today, Tami Moore briefly described her travel from Wisconsin to Texas and back over the weekend just past. She’s come to the conclusion that if she traveled more than once a year, an e-reader of some stripe would be very, very high on her “gotta have it!” list.
Tami listed a few reasons, however, for not getting an e-reader “right now.” Included in her list were digital rights management (DRM) (i.e., copy protection) and conflicting formats. In a rather lengthy comment, I addressed those two issues:
First, DRM. I’m convinced the “d” stands for devil. Enough said.
I do like your idea of tagging a digital media item (e-book, song, movie, audiobook) with a meta-tag to indicate who the owner is. And the idea of expiring a loaned item (with the ability to electronically/digitally “renew” the loan) should not be too difficult to implement. (Who knows? The idea may be patentable!) That sort of flexibility in DRM I’d be willing to back.
Second point, format wars. I have run across the occasional article discussing Amazon’s attempts to have authors (or publishers; not positive which, but I believe it’s authors, in order to bypass publishers) commit to exclusive electronic distribution via Amazon (and by extension, of course, the Kindle).
THIS IS BAD. It’s bad for a lot of reasons, that could fill several magazine-article-length blog posts. We’re already seeing some of that. Currently on my Android smartphone, I have no less than four (FOUR!!) e-reader apps: Kindle (Amazon), Kobo (e-pub format), Barnes & Noble, and Borders. All of them have different native formats. What the…?
Of course, I could download to my computer, and convert to PDF (or, God forbid, .txt or .rtf), and use a single reader. Umm…so much for the “convenience” factor.
Can you imagine, back in the days of vinyl records—okay, let’s be a bit more contemporary: CDs—if every studio (RCA, Capitol, Sony, Motown, Apple, A&M, etc.) encoded the discs differently, requiring a different CD player for each label?
“One format to bind them, one format to rule them all!”
In this article, I want to expand a bit on some of my comments at Tami’s blog.
Some Thoughts on DRM
First, I want to establish that I am strongly and irrevocably in favor of copyright, and the right of creative individuals—artists, authors, inventors (whose works are covered by patents, not copyrights), movie-makers, and musicians—to benefit from their works. Unlicensed copying and distribution, outside of fair use, is bad. In fact, it’s evil.1, 2
That said, I’m also a strong believer in and proponent of fair use of copyrighted materials. Just as I can buy a book at Borders and loan, or give, it to anyone I wish to, I should be able to do the same thing with digital media. I’m not talking about “archival copying,” and using the fiction that by uploading my iTunes library with a peer-to-peer (P2P) I’m archiving my songs to many off-site locations. I’m talking about transferring an e-book, for example, to Tami, without retaining a copy myself. After all, if I send her my paperback copy of Jim C. Hines‘s The Stepsister Scheme, I can’t keep the same book here in my house. (Yeah, I could use my scanner…no, we aren’t even going there.)
As I stated above, it shouldn’t be that hard to include a meta-tag on digital media to allow us to transfer the item to another device, without violating the spirit and intent of copyright law. I freely release that idea into the public domain. Furthermore, and even more importantly, such transfers should be mundane, without any concern about whether I’m violating copyright. No one’s ever (successfully) argued we shouldn’t do that with books (after all, that’s the whole premise of public libraries!); why can’t more modern media be used in the same manner?
“One Format to Rule Them All!”
The second point I want to expand on is the problem of various e-book formats. Pick a reader, and it has its own proprietary format: Amazon’s Kindle, Sony, Nook from Barnes and Noble (B&N), and Borders’s Kobo. (There are also several e-readers available for the various smartphone operating systems, as well as downloadable to Linux, OS X, and Windows. Most of those support the EPUB format, which is also supported by some or all of the more proprietary platforms.)
So in addition to the DRM issues discussed above, we’re faced with the choice of which e-reader, and thus, which format to give our allegiance to. Amazon has certainly earned its premier place in the marketplace by virtue of “getting there first.” Arguably, however, it also has the best product. So, it has a lot going for it. Now, however, it’s started to obtain exclusive electronic distribution rights, and is endeavoring to lock in more authors.
Without going too far afield from the original thesis, this action by Amazon could drive a huge change in “traditional” publishing: Amazon is attempting to sew up deals with authors (either via their agents or directly), thereby bypassing the publishing houses. Obviously, the ramifications of this are huge, not just for authors and publishers, but for distributors, including B&N, Borders, Apple (via the Apple Store), and, presumably, Google, which is working on its own online bookstore.
Currently, all of the e-readers I mentioned above, with the exception of Sony’s, are available in mobile versions, at least for the Android mobile operating system. However, as nice as it is to read an e-book on my Droid-X, there’s no question that readability is considerably enhanced on any of the other dedicated readers, or Apple’s iPad, given their larger screens. The X has a 4.3-inch (diagonal) screen; the smaller Kindle, for example, sports a 6-inch screen. However, on my phone, I can easily purchase and read a book from any or all of Amazon, Borders, or B&N. If you have a Kindle, you can’t even download a book from Borders, much less read it. And yes, you can download to your computer, reformat to Adobe PDF or EPUB, then try to get it onto your non-Kindle reader…but doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of “effortless”?
It’s hard to separate the issue of exclusive distribution from the issue of competing-and-not-equal formats, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume the former is not an issue. Now let’s say you want to buy Tami’s just-released first novel.3 Her publisher negotiated deals with Amazon, Borders, and B&N, so you have your choice of formats, just in case you only have one e-reader. However, Borders is selling the electronic version for the same price that Amazon’s selling the paperback version (no free shipping, unfortunately), which happens to be $3 less than either Amazon or B&N is charging for the e-book. Unfortunately, your e-reader is B&N’s Nook.
To put it baldly: You’re screwed.
E-book formats: “There can be only one!”
Yep: You’re screwed.
Now let’s go back to the point I originally made in response to Tami’s blog article: What if, “back in the day,” record labels each used their own proprietary encoding for CDs? In other words, your old-school Sony Walkman could only play CDs from Sony Music. You’d need another for Columbia, a third for RCA, and if you were lucky, only a fourth for smaller and independent labels. Napster would never have survived as long as it did, if it were leveling that playing field!
Remember VHS vs. Betamax? HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray? Do you see where I’m going with this? In the words of Highlander, “There can be only one!” Format, that is. Eventually, this market should shake out, and either a formal or de facto standard e-book format will emerge. It may be EPUB, it may be Amazon, or it may be something altogether different. In the meantime, I think I’ll just stick to keeping a bunch of e-readers on my phone.
- And all you P2Pers who get infected by viruses, spyware, keyloggers (and as a result get your WoW accounts hacked), I have absolutely no sympathy for you. *cough* Let me return you to our original rant. ↩
- Incidentally, the US Library of Congress just loosened up some of the restrictions on “fair-use” copying, “jailbreaking,” and the like. A huge step in the right direction away from some of the more draconian provisions of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). ↩
- DISCLAIMER: To my knowledge, Tami doesn’t have an agent. She isn’t close to publishing a novel, or anything else, to the best of my knowledge. I have no earthly idea whether she would agree to any of the actions I’ve ascribed to her for the purposes of these examples. I do believe that at some point in the future, she will (a) have an agent; (b) sell a novel. ↩