It seems we have been waiting for years for the e-book to “arrive.” The promise of having a whole library in a hand-held device has been made for a long time, but the technology has seldom lived up to expectation. The early readers were awkward to use and difficult to read. The latest generation of e-book readers seems to have improved a great deal, but problems still remain.
I participated in a trial of the Sony reader last year, and was very pleased with the visual display and the ease of use. But I was disappointed by the range of books available, which is probably the fault of my quirky and eclectic reading habits, and with the awkward way the reader displayed PDF files. Now the Amazon Kindle is getting a lot of attention. Several people have noted the limited selection (and Kindle does not allow reading of PDF files at all), but the debate about e-books has now begun to recognize another issue that reduces the value of e-books, digital rights management. UPDATE — Comment by Kim Knoch (click on comments above) explains that there is a way to read PDF files on Kindle for a small fee.
DRM is used, of course, to protect the value of a proprietary e-book by preventing copying and display in other devices. But the e-book vendors seem to have missed the obvious fact the DRM reduces the value of the e-book for consumers. By definition, DRM limits the options for readers, and in a our world of constant innovation and a plethora of devices that compete for our dollars, options are value.
A blog from the Free Software Foundation dedicated to a campaign against DRM – Defective by Design – makes this point in a post called “Don’t let DRM get between you and a good book.” The defective by design campaign is primarily a consumer movement, focused on electronic freedom and privacy (the threat DRM may sometimes pose to privacy is another important issue). They make the point that, with DRM limited e-books, every time an updated device is released it could require that consumers buy a new version of their favorite books. They also argue that DRM is bad for authors and publishers as well, supporting a form of “digital censorship.”
The same concern about DRM in e-books is also raised on a recent post on the if:book blog from the folks at the Institute for the Future of the Book. “The future of the sustainable book” is part of a much larger discussion, all of which is worth attention. Regarding all sorts of electronic texts, this telling remark clearly places DRM protected proprietary e-books low on the scale of sustainability: “since I work in book publishing, job one is to figure out what it means to create a sustainable book. Lots of models come to mind. Good ones like Wikipedia (device-neutral and always in the latest, free, edition) and bad ones like the Kindle, (which tries to create a market for an ebook reader with designed obsolescence).”
Today a e-mail appeared in my inbox that proclaimed that the era of DRM is over. The author was referring to a recent announcement by Sony BMG that they were finally considering following the lead of much of the rest of the music industry and selling music in an open MP3 format. This is good news, but it is not the end of DRM by any means. Many other issues regarding electronic protection measures remain, and we are still waiting for a truly usable, portable e-book and reader.