Sunday, March 20, 2011
Are eBooks Being Straight-Jacketed by pBook Thinking?
Today many see digital as an evolutionary and perhaps it’s the assumption that are being made in this thinking that is causing the issues, conflicts and challenges we face today. Some would suggest that some of the very basic assumptions being made and used to determine digital strategy may be fundamentally ungrounded and not safe.
First, many assume that the ebook is a replacement for the physical book (pbook). Many may accept that both will coexists for some time, but many also believe that eventually, pbooks as we know them today, will be displaced by ebooks. Secondly, we assume that because today we buy pbooks that this model will naturally apply to ebooks. This assumes that all transactions of ebooks will be outright purchase sales. Finally, we all tend to assume all books are for life and once bought are ours to own, build into our library and even pass on to the generations to come.
Today when we buy a pbook it is enshrined in a rights licence that is based on the properties and limitations of the format. We can share it, sell it, bin it, even drawn all over it, but we are not allowed to copy it or exploit it for commercial gain. It is a physical ‘asset’ which we can value, add to our collection and pass on freely to others. In principle the physical format dictates what we can and can’t do and that contract is entered into on its initial purchase. Imagine someone saying that you can’t share it, can only keep it for only a specific period of time, can only retain it on certain bookshelves and are not able to resell it to whom you wish for what you want. These restrictions would be totally impractical and unenforceable.
This is in fact governed more by the physical format of the book than anything else.
Digital content changes these basic freedoms and in their place often imposes constraints and controls that were previously unenforceable. The number of times a file is copied can be controlled, sharing files can be severely restricted if not obviated altogether, the selling files negated and even what devices the files can be played on can be restricted. This shift in what can be granted under a licence makes digital different and demands that the rules and assumptions once applied to the physical book, are no longer relevant. The books aren’t different; it is digital that is different. All sales are rights sales, buy the rights associated with ebooks and the basic assumptions on which these are based now need to be reviewed as merely apply physical logic is unsafe and just results in the ill thought-out stances we have seen recently.
The next set of assumptions we must challenge are about the life expectancy of the ebooks themselves. Do we believe that digital formats are really persistent and perpetual? Maintaining access to digital archives within libraries may be a reasonable expectation, but maintaining the same access privately may not be so simple. Remember Microsoft Reader, or some of the other less popular formats? Remember betamax, eightrack, and formats tied to long forgotten devices. MP3 may not be the highest quality recording but until it was widely adopted DRM free music was being strangled by its own DRM and associated formats. Formats will evolve, but not all versions will remain backward compatible. Some formats will be superseded others may just disappear and that ebook that you thought was for life may have a very limited shelf life. Some believe that DRM (Digital Rights Management) protects and enforces copyright, others that it is yet another factor that radically changes the nature of the transaction and rights sold. Importantly we must recognise that DRM can tie the sale to a specific manifestation of a title and even to a specific service that distributed it. In other words an ebook today can be tied to a specific buyer, a specific distribution server and even a limited number of devices. Fine today but will those relationships still exist in say 10 or say even 5 years time?
Social DRM has yet to make its mark, but is gathering some momentum. This is about specific watermarking of digital content at a transactional level and to be effective needs to be both visible and invisible. Social DRM does not enforce restrictions and could enable the ebook rights to be aligned more closer to the pbook . However, today we still live in the draconian straight-jacket of encrypted files that can only be unlocked by DRM licence and with their own self interests in mind some want it to remain so.
So at one end of the spectrum we have the pbook trading its rights in what could be described as being driven by ‘market forces’ and sold outright. At the other end we have the ebook and its digital shackles, relationships and restrictions that make an outright sale a joke.
At the heart of the current challenges lies the question of what exactly are we ‘selling’? Some would suggest that we are trying to impose horse drawn carriage rules on today’s cars. They like pbooks and ebooks are fundamentally different. Moving towards a more open licence approach to ebooks may change to total way we sell rights, what rights are sold, educate the buyer into why digital is different and create a less volatile trading market. It could challenge still further the model conflict between libraries and the High Street, but rather than being a negative this could be a very positive move for all parties. We may see ebooks move into a rental, ‘pay as you read’, ‘loan on demand’ and subscription based models of consumption and away from today’s inappropriate outright purchase model. In doing so we may also find a commercial model that rewards stimulates and unites those that matter most the authors, illustrators and creators. Ironically we may also actually create an environment that actually enables the physical book to co exist alongside the ebook.