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Ebooks: Failings and Solutions

Mark Mzyk | April 1, 2008

Obviously, I find the topic of ebooks and ebook readers fascinating, as I’ve talked about it twice now.  I’m now going to talk about it again.

Recently this Gizmodo article brought to light some facts I didn’t know about the current crop of ebook readers (This applies to Sony and Amazon. As for others, I don’t know).  The main fact being that when you “purchase” an ebook for the reader, you are in fact, only licensing the ebook.

I generally prefer to own things rather than license them.  I like to know I have the full power of ownership.  The issue of licensing brings up a question in relation to the price of ebooks: since I don’t actually own the ebook, why am I still paying such a high premium for the right to read it?  Yet another reason why the pricing of ebooks is skewed.

In addition to only allowing the licensing of an ebook as opposed to owning it, both ebook readers also restrict you from copying your ebook to someone else.  Even if you were allowed to own the ebook, I still think it is likely a restriction on copying would be placed upon you.  This is a problem that desperately needs a solution.

Much has been said on the web about how people pass around books and use borrowed and second hand books to discover new authors, which can then lead to more sales of books.  It’s the whole premise of the library system.  Yet this generation of ebook readers is threatening to kill that system.  You could argue the system can still exist if someone is willing to pass around the hardware, but that has drawbacks.  If I lend you my Kindle, then I can’t read any ebooks on it while you have it.  This would be akin to me loaning you not just a single book, but my entire library of books.

So what options are there that can make both readers and producers of ebooks happy, as far as copying?

The first solution is social:  Find a way to pay authors/creators/producers outside of the existing system, so that readers are then allowed to produce as many copies of ebooks as they want.  How this would work, I’m not sure.  For an example of how this might play out and how the public will react to it, pay close attention to the moves of the record labels as they try to deal with the downloading of music.

The second solution is also social: Authors/creators/producers trust in the good of people and remove DRM or copy-prevention from ebooks and allow people to make as many copies as they want.  Perhaps what will be discovered is that everything will still work out in the end while those who want to get payed get payed and the buying public is happy because they don’t face restrictions.  Will there be a few bad apples who use this system to pirate ebooks?  Certainly. However, I also believe that many people will still pay for ebooks while giving their friends copies, who may then also become paying readers.  Of course, no one is going to make a change to the current system based only on my word.  I currently only dream of having that much power.

But neither of those solutions are what I really want to talk about.  I want to address the third option, which is the technical solution.

Let’s step back for a moment and examine a situation with a non-electronic paper book.  I happen to be reading Brave New World at the moment, so let’s use that.  I finish reading Brave New World.  I then discover that my coworker is an uncouth near illiterate Luddite.  In an effort to bring him into civilization, I loan him my copy of Brave New World.  While he has my copy, he can read it at his leisure.  However, because he has my only copy, I am unable to read the book until he returns it to me, I purchase another copy, or someone else loans me their copy.

It should be possible to recreate this exact scenario with ebooks.  I purchase an ebook.  I read it.  After having read it, I want to let you read it, so I copy it to your ebook reader.  You are now free to read the copy you have, while the copy I have on my machine stops working.  It only resumes working when you copy it back to me, I purchase a new copy, or someone else gives me their copy.

This an exchange that can be created technologically.  Is this a form of DRM?  Yes, in so much as it restricts you from taking advantage of some of what a digital format has to offer, especially the cheap copying ability.  However, this does recreate, in a small way, the world of physical books that people know and love.  I think that because this system mimics physical books most people would be accepting of it and would play by the rules laid out.  Would someone crack the system?  Of course.  All DRM eventually gets cracked.  Still, I think that is inconsequential here because this system would give people enough flexibility that they wouldn’t feel overly constrained and would be willing to abide by it.  It would also give the authors/producters/distributors some measure of control over the copies of their ebooks so they wouldn’t feel like they were losing all of their revenue to piracy (whether the piracy argument is true or not: remember, perception is a part of reality).  If an ebook doesn’t do well under this system, it is because the ebook failed, and it cannot be blamed on everyone obtaining a pirated copy.

I wonder what it would take to convince Amazon or Sony to give this system a try.  At the very least, it’s a step forward from the dark ages that ebooks are in now.  The current landscape of ebooks resembles the time in history when copying was done laboriously by hand.  Ebooks need to at least catch up to the time of Gutenberg’s printing press.  How can a medium become popular and profitable if it isn’t allowed to spread?  That’s the dilemma with ebooks today.