To Be or Not to Be . . . DRM-Free

To Be or Not to Be . . . DRM-Free
McCormick Place West, Room W470b
8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

Opening statements from speakers

DRM – Digital management of digital objects; the policies and practices that surround the delivery; creator -> resource -> end-user. At the University of South Florida we currently have about 300,000 e-books: NetLibrary, eBrarary, Early English Books Online, etc. If the books are DRM-free, we buy those wholesale. We are buying fewer and fewer books that have barriers to use.

Question from audience: Can you currently buy just certain chapters of a book?
Answer: No

Some Problems with current eBooks
Visual verification
Having to login after you’ve already been "authenticated"
Software installations

Publishers frequently don’t own the copyright to the material that they’re making available. The author may license the content to the publisher. The publisher may have some control, but they have responsibility for protecting the content as well. For books that run through many editions, authors may not be willing to update the contract to accommodate new technologies.

Many libraries are seeing e-use up and print-use down. An audience comment notes that ease-of-use is a key factor driving this. Panelist notes that some libraries in underprivileged areas continue buying print simply because their clientele don’t have computers at home.

Vendor perspective: There are no standards for DRM. Some publishers are offering DRM-free content on their site, but they’re requiring the vendors to use it! Double standards from publishers.


Vendor perspective: There are no standards for DRM. Some publishers are offering DRM-free content on their site, but they’re requiring the vendors to use it! Double standards from publishers.


Publisher response: I let my kids do more in my own house than when they go to a friend’s house. When we control the content on our site, we can be a little more relaxed. When we license content to a vendor, we have a responsibility to copyright owners, too.


Publisher: If our books are so encumbered with DRM that they can’t be used, libraries will stop using our product. It behooves us to let our decisions be informed by the issues that libraries are facing.


Vendor perspective: Quality content still needs DRM. Publishers provide a service that blogging doesn’t really replace. Libraries select and purchase content that has value to their readers. Publishers are still struggling with ebook revenues. Print revenues are shrinking, and ebook revenues are miniscule. The new revenue models are not making up for falling revenues in the traditional models. Although publishers are embracing ebooks, they still have to find a way to survive. Piracy is still a significant problem for publishers. What is the appropriate level of DRM? There is a huge social cost when we lose quality content.


Audience comment: When technology comes on board without standards, there are always problems. This needs to be addressed as a joint effort between libraries, publishers, and vendors.


Will the market define the standards?


Publisher: As a publisher, I can’t see much plausibility in all publishers coming to an agreement on how to implement DRM.


Vendor: Springer Publishing is often cited as a positive example in the DRM arena. However, they’re currently up for sale. The argument was made that Springer’s model focused on short-term revenues where other publishers are focusing on long-term survival.

Audience comment: Some countries essentially don’t have copyright laws. They don’t understand the concept of copyright, and they don’t see why they can’t just share everything they find on the Internet.

Audience question: What are some of the different forms of DRM?

Visual verification

Login name and password

File tethering to a certain device

File encryption

Limiting access (viewing, printing, copy/paste)

Watermarking (doesn’t prevent anything, but it serves as an identification)


This watermarking approach sometimes links files to specific institutions. If a publisher suddenly sees dozens of files watermarked for a particular institution appearing on freely available websites, they can address security/DRM issues with that particular institution.


Problem for publishers with Google Books

The Google Book project requires publishers to make 20% of the content available through the site. This amount is non-negotiable. For publishers of reference works, this is practically untenable because the nature of the work lends itself to snatch-and-grab use. People just need a quick fact and then they move on. If 20% of a reference work is available, this significantly impacts the publisher’s revenue stream.


For publishers what is the final measure? Do you get more or less revenue from DRM-free content? Once you have the numbers, then you have a basis for comparison and can make intelligent decisions.

Kindle 2

After the obligatory period of speculation, Amazon’s Kindle 2 has arrived. It was announced a couple of weeks ago amid much fanfare and hoopla. Initial reviews give it good marks, but time in the hands of actual end-users will tell the tale. It looks like the design has seen some improvements, and I’m glad to see any type of e-book technology make a little headway. Engadget enjoyed a grand unboxing yesterday, so we’re off to the races.

In thinking about e-books, e-book readers, and how libraries might approach this technology, a number of questions come to mind. One question, however, stands out above all others: How do we free licensed e-books from the tethers of vendor web sites? Most of our e-books are viewed through the Adobe Acrobat reader or through some other proprietary format that depends on having a plug-in installed on a desktop computer. While this is sometimes okay for searching technical manuals in the office, this is completely unacceptable for extended reading. Many vendors who peddle e-books to libraries kind of miss the point that THE REST OF OUR BOOKS ARE PORTABLE. If the e-book is tied to a vendor’s server, then users are also tied to that server. That means that the users must have a computer and a persistent network connection to access the content. Even the tiny netbooks out on the market don’t match the portability of a book.

If we can’t get past that question, then the other questions become even more difficult. I’ve read of a number of libraries asking whether they should offer specific devices for accessing their e-book collections. Assuming that they could work out appropriate licensing with a vendor, do libraries really need to get involved in supporting another exotic technology? Maybe – maybe not. Depends on the library, its resources, collections, and the needs of the patron base. Not all patrons will even want to read electronic books, but for those who do, libraries would probably be better served by letting patrons pick their own reading devices. The Kindle 2 and Sony’s Reader are both viable options, but so is the iPhone. As smartphones become smarter, there will be even more options for both hardware and software.

Libraries have enough to do just trying to make sense of the formats. Take a look at NetLibrary’s Full-Text eContent FAQ. In trying to support NetLibrary, libraries are looking at three different plug-ins: Adode Reader (Windows), Schubert-It PDF Viewer (Mac), and DJvu Reader (Windows/Mac). Go to ebrary, and it doesn’t get any better. They have three different versions of a proprietary book reader. Amazon’s Kindle supports Mobipocket books, plain text files, and – you guessed it – Amazon’s own proprietary format. Sony Reader supports PDF, TXT, RTF, SecurePDF, and ePub. Few organizations have the time, inclination, or resources to support so many competing formats.

In spite of all that though, there is a growing market for e-book content. If the publishers could just get together on standards for formatting and server-free licensing, that could do a lot to really help the market take off.

Of iPhones and e-books

There are a number of posts floating around that try to compare Apple’s iPhone to Amazon’s Kindle as an e-book platform. The first one I happened across was on a CNET blog. Links to others are listed below.

As a frequent e-book user myself, I have a few opinions on the concept. Over the years I’ve seen several devices and listened to a number of programs that explored the options and applications for electronic books. I’ve seen small, medium, and large dedicated handheld devices that do nothing but e-books. I’ve seen library vendors who offer online e-books in HTML and PDF format for viewing on a regular computer screen. I’ve played with a number of e-book readers that run on Palm PDAs.

One of the most important aspects of any book (electronic or otherwise) is portability. You can easily carry it around with you. You can toss it in a backpack. You can easily carry it on a plane. For me this immediately rules out vendors that expect you to read their content on a desktop or even a laptop computer. (NetLibrary and ebrary, this means you!) For my use, these vendors just miss the point. I don’t care how good their search tools are, how good their annotation tools are, or what utilities they offer for researching within their collections. I. Just. Don’t. Care. If I can’t take it with me, they’ve lost me. That being said, I MIGHT be willing to use a proprietary reader with their collections if I can load that reader on my portable device of choice, but ultimately, if I can’t take the book with me, then just go away.

That turns the conversation to portable devices like the Kindle, Sony’s Reader Digital Book, or any of a host of smartphones. Now we’re getting somewhere. Portability.

For many users screen size (and more importantly, font size) are the deciding factors in whether they can even get comfortable with e-books. I’m currently reading my books on a Treo with a screen that measures 2.5″ diagonally. (That’s just a shade over 1.75″ wide and high, or320 x 320 pixels). This is fine for me. I have an e-book reader I truly enjoy, and I’ve read many, many books on this device. However, that just won’t get it for some people. The screen is simply too small for them to be able to read comfortably. Apple’s iPhone offers a nice improvement over the Treo. This phone’s 3.5″ (diagonal widescreen) design gives more space to screen real estate, and therefore more reading room. Again though, this just may not cut it for some users. Jumping up to the Kindle, users get a 6″ (diagonal) screen that probably jumps more into the realm of readability for a lot of users.

So if you really, really, REALLY want to read e-books, chances are you can find a reader somewhere out there that will suit your style. Great for the end-users, but what about libraries? If libraries want to offer e-books to their patrons, which technology do they go with? Do they use a vendor that offers books that are online viewable online? Do they invest in dedicated readers? Or will the growing smartphone market presage a new wave of readers and e-book formats?

I’m not sure, but I’m holding out for new readers on smartphones. Increasingly people are doing more and more with their phones, and the more they can do, the more they WANT to do. For awhile I carried both a cell phone and a PDA, and I was glad to reach the point where I could carry a single device that combine both functions. (That being said, I do still have three e-book readers on my device, or four if you count a PDF reader. Yeah, I REALLY like e-books). If this is the emerging model, then libraries need new options from vendors in terms of both readers and formats. Or better yet, why not standardize on some of the formats that are already out there? A number of readers already support standard HTML files. Whatever the solution, vendors would do well to make it as easy as possible for libraries to purchase and provide access to e-books. Likewise, vendors should pay attention to smartphone users and find out just how they want to read content on their portable devices.

Other links: