Share This

E-books: DRM + conflicting formats + exclusivity = “We are screwed” | Kestrel's Aerie

E-books: DRM + conflicting formats + exclusivity = “We are screwed” | Kestrel's Aerie

E-books: DRM + conflicting formats + exclusivity = “We are screwed”


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!”
Now let’s imagine another scenario: Tami’s agent was able to negotiate exclusive e-publishing rights with Amazon. This is good for Tami, because she’ll realize higher royalties than if a publishing house were to get a cut as well. Unfortunately, if your e-reader isn’t a Kindle, guess what?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
12 Responses to E-books: DRM + conflicting formats + exclusivity = “We are screwed”
  1. Tami
    July 28, 2010 | 15:47

    Re 3) D’awww. *hugs* Thank you!

    If you’re curious, here’s my favorite post on The Future of Publishing (from an author’s perspective). Very interesting, and not so doom and gloom as many that I’ve read.
    Tami´s latest blog post is Travel and eReadersMy ComLuv Profile

    • Kestrel
      July 28, 2010 | 16:39

      What a great article, Tami! Thank you for linking it. While I agree with most of the author’s points, I question his hypothesis that publishers will make more profit. They might make on a “per-copy-sold” basis, but Randy’s made a lot of salient points that argue that fewer copies of “p-books” will be sold.

      Unfortunately, I think publishing houses are in the same heaving sea that newspapers are in, and unless and until they reinvent themselves, they’re bailing buckets will, sadly, prove ineffective.

      • Tami
        July 29, 2010 | 09:01

        I think the profit question comes about because they will have a narrower focus. Right now, they publish (and pay for) thousands of books, of which only a handful may turn a profit. That’s not even counting the marketing they do for the even tinier handful per year that they think they can propel to the Harry Twilight Vinci Code stardom.

        By waiting for people to decide which books/authors become p-books, they’re doing a lot less gambling.

        “You have to spend money to make money.”

        “No you don’t. You totally don’t. You get your money. And then you keep your money. And that’s how you make money!”
        Tami´s latest blog post is Travel and eReadersMy ComLuv Profile

        • Kestrel
          July 29, 2010 | 09:51

          Okay, that makes sense. But then it raises the question, will the publishing houses be willing to change to that model?

          If five years in the newspaper business taught me one thing, it’s that old dogs can learn new tricks, but it’s a very long, very painful process. And that assumes the desire to change.

          • Tami
            July 29, 2010 | 09:59

            *laughs* “willing” Doubtful.

            Those profiting off the current are rarely “willing” to accept change.

            Upheaval will happen, and I don’t think it’ll be pretty. Heck, it hasn’t been pretty THUS far. Just because the first round of firings, quittings, foreclosures, and going out of businesses is over doesn’t mean we’re done. I predict a lot more painful changes before this is over because of exactly what you said – people dig in their heels and pull against anything, even if the end result might be better than where they were.
            Tami´s latest blog post is Travel and eReadersMy ComLuv Profile

  2. elleseven
    July 28, 2010 | 16:09

    The reasons I will not be getting an E-reader anytime in the distant feature is the cost. As a bathtub reader I couldn’t afford to replace one if I dropped it in the tub. As a read at the beach person, I can’t stand the glare on my portable games or phone when outside. And as a frugal reader I get everything I need at my local library.

    • Kestrel
      July 28, 2010 | 16:31

      There’s a simple solution (and even commercial options) to the first issue: a gallon-size ziplock bag.

      As for the second: One of the huge pluses of the Kindle (shared in greater or lesser measure by the others, not including iPad) is that the “e-ink” technology, which is not an LED screen, is much, much more forgiving (and readable!) in bright light.

      Cost is still a bit of an issue, but it seems to me if one can justify $200–$400 for an iPod, ~$100–$150 for an e-reader is reasonable. Prices have dropped considerably this summer, and I expect < $100 to be common in time for Christmas buying.

      Conversely, like you, my wife is an inveterate reader/listener, and much prefers perusing library shelves to bookstore shelves.

      But as Tami pointed out in her article, travel changes the playing field. :)

      Full disclosure: I don’t anticipate ever buying an e-reader; my wife prefers audiobooks, and I am starting (for the very first time) to consider an iPad. My Droid X suffices quite nicely as an e-reader.

  3. Celerann
    July 29, 2010 | 03:28

    There’s another aspect you haven’t even touched on yet which provided another huge bummer for me: regional restrictions.

    As a frequent business traveler who always lugs at least 1-2 Kg of books around, I was recently convinced by my US-based colleagues that buying an e-reader was the thing to do. And while I did do some research before purchasing a device (I picked the Sony as supporting the most amount of non-proprietary formats), regional restrictions escaped my notice.

    That lasted exactly until the moment I first tried to purchase an English e-book on one of the US resellers (which just so happen to be cheaper than the UK resellers, among others because the currency exchange rates are more favourable, but also because obviously the US resellers sell higher volumes). After checking out about 50$ worth of books, they all got removed from my shopping basket on account on having an overseas credit card.

    Regional restrictions: When you’re not living in the US or Canada, the dinosaurs in the publishing industry are making us believe that regional restrictions born out of the paper world apply also for an e-book.

    Beyond the irritation this causes (and which immediately detracted from the enjoyment of my brand new device), it’s somehow fascinating that after watching the music and movie industries completely screwing up electronic distribution, the book publishers are still unable to question whether reproducing paper practice in the electronic world is really the best way of doing business.

    Electronic media distribution can work, and at least in computer gaming, some companies finally got it right and solved all challenges posed by distribution and copy protection. For over a year now I’ve bought all my games through Steam for instance. Needless to say, the day we get a Steam network for e-books, music or movies, all the companies that appear to outdo each others to find restrictions and ways to NOT get the money I’d like to pay them for their products will achieve what seems to be their business objective: to ensure I never shop with them again.

    Don’t these people ever learn?
    Celerann´s latest blog post is On Immersion- Do Trees Fall in Virtual Forests when Nobody&8217s aroundMy ComLuv Profile

    • Kestrel
      July 29, 2010 | 09:40

      Oh my, you’re absolutely right. And even our Canadian neighbors often suffer, not so much the regional restrictions (e.g., on DVDs, since they’re part of—in fact, most of—”North America”).

      But your point is very salient. It boggles my mind that point-of-sale software still can’t figure out where you are, where you’re from, and what the exchange rate is when all you’re purchasing is, in fact, ones and zeroes.

      International shipping and the like, I can almost understand; even then, if the buyer is willing to pay the freight, then why in the world wouldn’t the seller want to make the sale?

  4. Iris
    July 29, 2010 | 08:14

    That is one thorny issue, right there…

    Alright, first: I adore my Kindle. I own one, and it has become the almost only way I read books, to the point of “if it is not on the Kindle (or audible), then I won’t read it.” It is not a loyalty issue, merely a convenience one. My Kindle takes less place than even most paperbacks, and it’s tenths of unread books to start at a whim, at any given time. Wherever I am, I can get a NEW book without bothering to so much as sniff a computer (Wireless, I love you!). So, my point is – I am an e-reader convert. And possibly, a bit of a missionary, heh.

    That said, the market is going through its birthing pains, in my opinion. Eventually it will shake out and settle. It will only take a bit of time…

    What I don’t agree on, so much, is the whole deal with “stealing books is BAAAAD”. Yes, I said it. Why? Well, there are examples like Cory Doctorow (who has the track record to prove offering your books as Creative Commons-licensed free downloads is a sales-booster), and Paulo Coelho (who literally pirated his own books to offer them for free at first, and his sales skyrocketed… and he still does that).

    The truth is, people who would buy the book will likely buy it anyway. And people who would pirate it whether you wave your whip or not, now have a legal way to enjoy your work without becoming criminalised (with punishments absurdly higher than those for rape, in some countries; with risking being cut off the internet for life and all manner of other absurdities, admittedly coming mainly from the film industry at present). If I were one such person, I would buy the damn book just out of gratitude that some author is breaking the pattern of draconian idiocy… And also, there is the simple fact that if you offer your work for free, it will reach more people, and word of mouth will guarantee you more buyers even just for that.

    So yeah. I think proprietary formats is not the only aspect that needs serious shaking. So does the whole concept of DRM. And those God awful long threatening messages at the beginning of DVDs, that are cut out on every bloody pirated version . Talk about barking up the wrong tree…

    In the end, I like what Paulo Coelho said on the subject. “I always thought that when, at the beginning of your career, you strive to be read, you can’t change your mind later and become greedy about it.” And disseminating free copies of his work, promoting pirated versions on other website, he became a millionaire. I wonder…
    Iris´s latest blog post is ButterfliesMy ComLuv Profile

    • Kestrel
      July 29, 2010 | 09:48

      Well, Iris, you’re getting into the whole “Why is there DRM in the first place?” argument. And you know as well as I that there are Terabytes of data in support of doing away with DRM.

      For those who don’t follow these things, the main thrust of the anti-DRM argument is that the only people hurt by DRM are those of us who aren’t going to “pirate” media in the first place. Pirates are going to pirate, regardless, and DRM is generally a tiny bump in the road.

      Think of DRM as being a 50-lb concrete block attached to any book, CD, or DVD you buy. Sure, you can give that item to a friend, but you’ve got that damned block of concrete to deal with. Media pirates? Pshaw…break up the concrete, cut the chain attaching it to the media, and go on their way. But you and I don’t have the tools the pirates have.

      (Yeah, the analogy weakens by extension—as do most analogies—but I hope you see the point I’m trying to make…and why I more-or-less purposefully steered my article away from the devil that is DRM.)

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steve Hall (Kestrel), Steve Hall (Kestrel). Steve Hall (Kestrel) said: Aaaand let's try that URL one more time (sorry, changed to .com from .us): […]