At GigaOm, Matthew Ingram writes that our relationship with e-books is “too complicated.” He cites the example of some innovative new e-book-related social-networking services, OpenMargin and Readmill, which can only work with DRM-free e-books—meaning they will not work with most of what Amazon and Barnes & Noble sell. (They’d go great with Baen books, though!)
The ability to “share” e-books with friends is not uniformly available, either, often locked down by publishers who want people to buy their own copies. And vendor lock-in means that e-book sellers have a vested interest in making their e-books as incompatible as possible with other e-book sellers’ devices.
Will we ever be able to download a digital version of the print book we just bought, and then share that book with friends — or even sell it to someone else at a discounted price, as we can with real books — or share our margin notes and highlights with others, regardless of what e-book reader they use? Based on the current state of the market, that seems like an almost unobtainable dream, unless some government agency forces publishers and retailers/e-book reader companies to adopt true open standards (which seems unlikely).
Ingram opines that publishers might sell a lot more books if they made them easier for readers to buy and use in the ways they wanted to. I think he’s got it exactly right—both on the desirability of openness, and the unlikeliness of it happening any time soon.
It’s kind of a vicious circle, as I see it. Publishers are way too concerned over their e-books being pirated to want to make their books any more “open” (and thus making the piracy easier), but their insistence on keeping the books locked down drives more people to pirate because they can’t get the books in a way that is useful to them. I won’t say that’s the only reason people pirate—some are hoarders, some are samplers, some are information-wants-to-be-free ideologues, and some are just cheapskates—but I’m sure it’s a pretty big one.
I don’t see either the piracy situation or publishers’ recalcitrance changing any time soon, more’s the pity. The music industry was able to come to its senses and dump DRM, but it had a lot fewer major players than the publishing industry, so fewer people needed to be brought to that decision—and besides, it had Steve Jobs on its case. The publishing industry is a lot more of a mess, and Steve Jobs didn’t have the time to get around to bringing his anti-DRM philosophy to e-books. (I wonder if he eventually would have, the way he did for iTunes? Or were music and e-books Apple and oranges for him?) If it ever happens, it’s probably going to be years in the making.