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.


  1. @Sherri, I think that you have it wrong. Neither Apple nor Amazon sold DRM-free music until rights holders agreed to that. Who should get more credit for convincing them will be a challenge for historians to sort out. I suspect that the full story will be far more complex than portrayed here.

  2. The rights holders agreed to let Amazon sell DRM free music because they wanted to try to break Jobs’ monopoly on digital music:

    Yes, Jobs said he didn’t like DRM, but I don’t see much evidence that he was the leader in getting rid of DRM in music, or that he was trying to get rid of DRM on ebooks (or movies and TV, which iTunes had been selling for longer than ebooks.)

  3. Electronic files and physical goods are not the same. Expecting to be able to use them in the same way is about as stupid as expecting to be able to have sex with a digital photo of Jenna Jameson.

    Trying to figure out how to make digital media do something they are not designed to do is the reason for your “mess.” Until we, as consumers, get used to the idea that digital media are a different animal, and commerce built around that animal will never be the same as that around physical goods, we will continue to have problems, DRM being the least of them.

  4. True, but if I actually had sex with Jenna Jameson I certainly would want a free digital photo 😉

    Anyway, eventually the industry will figure out that it is the content and experience people are paying for. The consumers don’t want to be blocked from using that content by some arbitrary restriction set by the publisher. The consumer has expectations that some publisher will eventually decide to fulfill. If that means finding a way for ebooks to function more like real books then it will eventually come to pass.

    It won’t be one of the Agency 6 that does it. They are too paranoid and see ebooks as both a threat and a source of extra revenue at the same time. They are suffering from the same mentality the music industry had a decade ago when their motto was “sue everyone who gets our product in a form other than the way we want to sell it.”

  5. JJ gave you sex… and you want a photo too? Greedy dog, aren’t you? 😉

    Consumers may not want “arbitrary restrictions,” but there are some restrictions that consumers will have to accept in order to allow some reasonable profitability to writers and producers, in the same way that you can’t share your cable signal with a neighbor, and you can’t copy Photoshop to give to your cousin.

    The problem is, no one seems to be able to get on the same page about what those reasonable restrictions should be. The exchanges I hear are a lot like listening to Congress: Each side yells a lot, criticizing the other side, and never actually listens to what the other side has to say.

  6. The publishing industry and many of its clients, workers and hangers-on portray these restrictions as “defensive” against piracy. I submit that this is a grand attempt to misdirect and deceive. The true objective appears to be the replacement of all the things that have irked them in the past such as the right of first sale (what Libraries are based upon) and the secondary (used) book market with a system that yields higher and more consistent revenue streams. Non-casual piracy will continue unabated but consumers will have fewer choices, will pay more and will get less than the medium allows. Of course there are a few enlightened publishers such as O’Reilly so hope persists. Consumers will vote with their national currency and that will determine the outcome.

  7. I suspect you’re overthinking this, Frank; assuming a “grand scheme” in this doesn’t fit an industry that’s barely changed its shirts in 50 years. The used book market had been dying long before ebooks came along; it’s scarcely a threat. Libraries are likewise losing popularity to the web. All the people who used to use bookstores and libraries are going online. It really is as simple as the industry trying to keep consumers from picking their pockets at the virtual store level, and they think DRM will do that for them.

    We still have an attitude problem at both ends. Your suggestion that “non-casual piracy will continue unabated” suggests that this is somehow acceptable to all parties, including honest consumers (because, in fact, many so-called “honest consumers” dip into piracy sources whenever they decide the publishers are guilty of some indiscretion or another). Not only do we need to limit non-casual piracy, we need to remove the willingness of casual users to dip into piracy channels whenever it’s convenient, and get them to understand how wrong tacit acceptance of piracy is.

    If publishers believed the public was willing and able to avoid pirate channels, they would be more amenable to ease restrictions on consumers. If they could be assured that authorities would protect their interests, publishers and sellers would be more likely to ease DRM use.

    But right now, the onus is on the consumer, who has already demonstrated his lack of consideration towards the seller… consumers need to take the next step to a mutually-trustworthy ebook environment. If consumers aren’t willing to stand up and take the high ground, the seller has no reason to trust consumers or change their tactics.

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