It may surprise you to know that when you buy an e-book from Amazon, B&N, or pretty much any other e-book retailer, you’re not really buying the e-book in the same sense that you’d buy a printed book or, say, a tomato. You’re actually paying for a license to do certain things with the e-book, such as download it to a certain device, read it, lend it one time for 14 days, perhaps listen to it with text-to-speech (or perhaps not), etc. But it’s quite confusing for a couple of reasons: first, it feels like a sale (not a license) because you pay money, then download the e-book, then it sits on your e-reader or computer and it certainly seems like you own it. Second, neither the publishers nor the retailers have really gone out of their way to explain or market these transactions as mere licenses instead of sales, since they know people are unwilling to pay as much for a license as for full ownership of something (note that the button on Amazon says “Buy Now,” not “Rent Now” or “Lease Now” or “Click Here to Enter into a Complicated Licensing Arrangement”).
But this ambiguity leads to certain problems and misunderstandings. For example, the infamous case of Amazon removing the book 1984 from people’s Kindles — which was actually pretty reasonable when you understand that those e-books were licensed, and not sold. (You know those 50 pages of legal crap you skip over when you create an Amazon account or update your iTunes or iPhone software? It’s in there somewhere … I think — I didn’t read it.) Since Amazon was merely licensing those e-books to you, under their own license from a publisher (who only licensed the right to distribute the book — and did not buy the copyright — from the author), once Amazon realized that one of those licenses was invalid (in this case, the publisher did not properly license the right to distribute the work), the subsequent licenses down the chain became invalid. And since it was a license, not a sale, you never legally owned that copy of 1984, so Amazon did what they thought was right at the time, and removed it.
In the physical book world, you’ve probably heard about the “first sale doctrine.” That means that, once you lawfully purchase or acquire a printed book, you can then lend or re-sell it as you see fit. (You can not make additional copies, but you can sell the one copy you have.) But this is where the confusion comes in — people understand they have those rights with a physical book, even if they’ve never heard of the first sale doctrine. They still know they can lend the book to their sister. And they expect the same with an e-book, because they assume they bought the e-book and didn’t just rent or license it. Of course, to be reasonable, lending or selling a physical book means you lose access to it, and the same is not true of a digital file (which you can keep and email to a friend), so perhaps it’s not fair for the same rules to apply.
Where it gets confusing is that, while no one is going out of their way to point out that you just plunked down $12.99 to only license that new e-book, Amazon is going out of their way to assure customers that they will never remove purchased e-books from customers’ Kindles again. When you buy an e-book from Amazon, you can download it to your Kindle, and it will stay there, whether you’re connected to Amazon or not, whether Amazon even continues to exist or not. You don’t have to log in or authenticate or anything to keep reading it. You can even download a copy of the e-book to your computer and back it up with the rest of your computer data. And if Amazon disappeared tomorrow, you’d keep right on reading whatever e-books you had already downloaded. In short, it sure feels like you bought and own the e-book.
Even those of us who understand that e-books we buy are actually licensed are generally OK with the situation, because of all the safeguards I’ve described above. I own the file, it sits on my Kindle, on my computer, and backed up on an external hard drive, and there’s no way for Amazon to reach into my computer and remove it or stop it from working. I can turn my Kindle’s wireless off and they can’t touch that either. So I’m OK with paying for an e-book under the current system. But I don’t think readers will accept full-on e-book licenses — not without certain guarantees that make those “licenses” act more like traditional sales. For the same reasons, I don’t think customers will accept reading “in the cloud” — e-books you read only while connected to the Internet and don’t download anywhere — since we understand our access to those titles could be cut off at any time.
I know readers are willing to give up owning a physical object, and I even think they’re willing to give up the traditional “first sale” print rights of lending and resale, so long as the e-book prices are lower than physical. This is a key point: whether it’s called a license or a sale, readers do understand that they don’t get all the rights they get with print books, and don’t think they should pay the full print price (also, of course, we understand e-books cost less to produce). But I don’t think readers are willing to give up ownership of the digital file (at least not now or anytime soon). People want to build digital libraries and own those files forever — they don’t want to re-buy them in some other format for some new e-reader / tablet / smartphone / laptop device 5 years from now, and they don’t want to somehow lose access to them. So, call it a license, call it a sale, call it whatever you want, so long as I can download the file to my computer and back it up and keep reading it even if Amazon disappeared from the face of the Earth or wanted to stop all Kindle operations tomorrow.
Of course, publishers would like nothing more than to sell you an e-book today, and in 5 years, when some new e-book format magically appears, sell you that same e-book again in that new format. After all, it worked for the music and movie industries, which made you buy cassette tapes, then CDs, then MP3s (and VHS tapes, then DVDs, then Blu-Ray DVDs). Will they get away with it? I don’t think so. The file is already digital, and there’s no issue of higher quality or resolution — words are words are words. (Of course, “enhanced” e-books, with video and such, would be a different story if anyone wanted to buy such things.) And, there’s no reason why the Kindle 8 or iPad generation 17 can’t read MOBI or ePub e-book files — and even if they can’t, software will exist to convert them into the new file formats. Of course, this is where DRM comes in, and where things get messy. This is why a lot of people are so strongly against DRM, and where the issue of ownership comes to a head: we understand publishers want to prevent copying, but if I own the e-book file, I should be able to convert it and read it on some new device 5 or 10 years from now. And, if I can’t, if this isn’t an e-book sale, but just a strictly-controlled rental that will expire in a few years, then forget $9.99 — people aren’t going to be willing to pay anywhere near print book prices for e-books, nor should they, if they’ll just have to keep re-buying them every few years. And I think the publishers are intentionally refusing to clarify the issue, because they don’t want customers to think about that possibility. But what I think they overlook is that, if they try to get us to re-purchase the same e-books in a different format, people will start removing the DRM from their legally purchased e-books and wonder why they’re paying for them in the first place. Yes, readers have the ultimate trump card here, so long as we are able to download the files.
So I think we need a little more clarity from the publishers and retailers on the licensing vs. ownership thing. We give them our $9.99, and they can do whatever they want with it. It’s theirs. What do we get in return? What rights do we have? What do we own, if anything? And what can we do with it 5 years from now? And if readers don’t like the answers they get, I don’t think publishers will like the readers’ response.
So, how about a new e-book sale/licensing doctrine, one to replace the first sale doctrine from the print book world? OK, we can give up lending and re-selling, so long as we own the digital files and have the right to convert them into whatever formats we need, now or in the future. No copying, no pirating, just me reading the e-book I bought today 10 years from now. Sound fair?
I spend a lot of time reading forums related to e-books and e-readers, including the official forums at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’ve seen countless posts by readers decrying (a) high e-book prices (the agency model and $14.99 e-books), (b) delayed e-book releases, (c) publishers blocking text-to-speech, (d) annoying DRM attached to e-books (and the incompatibilities that result), and (e) recently, publishers blocking the lending feature (which B&N has had for a while and Amazon just added).
In this new age of digital reading, readers DO have the power to help shape the new rules of the game. Readers control all the money spent on books, and that’s always been the case. Publishers will try to raise prices, window releases (delaying e-books), block text-to-speech, block lending, institute DRM, and their new frontier will be trying to get us all to read online in the “cloud,” which just allows them to lock down the content more effectively by preventing us from downloading a file.
But the thing to remember is that publishers can only get away with what readers allow them to get away with. Not all publishers are on the agency model (5 of the “Big 6” are, but Random House and smaller publishers are not). If readers refuse to buy books over a certain price, or with certain features blocked, or that do not allow us to download the file we’ve paid for, or whatever, then publishers will have to cave in and give readers what they want. We’ve already seen that readers generally wouldn’t pay $14.99 for new releases, and publishers lowered them to $12.99, which enough people seem to be paying.
Readers DO have choices. There are a million books a year published in the U.S. alone, and most of them don’t go through large publishers. Many books are sold for much lower prices, enable lending and text-to-speech, and don’t have DRM attached. True, you might have to take a chance in finding some new authors and you might not love all the new authors you find, but it is a choice, and the choices that readers make now will shape the way e-books are read for decades to come.
One aspect of e-books that can be confusing is the question of which e-books can be read on which e-reader device. E-books from Amazon, B&N, and other vendors can come in different file formats, and Kindles, Nooks, Sony Readers, Kobos, and other e-readers may each read certain e-book formats and not others. It’s a mess that’s similar to where digital music was 5 or 10 years ago, with various confusing file formats (thankfully, music has pretty much standardized on the MP3 file format now).
There are three major e-book formats: PDF, ePub, and MOBI, along with a host of minor ones.
PDF is a file format you may already be familiar with; it’s not specific to e-books, but was designed by Adobe as a “Portable Document Format” that retains formatting and can be read on many different kinds of computers or other devices. It’s useful because PDFs can be read on almost any computer or e-book reader, and because the formatting and any pictures or charts should be well preserved. However, it’s not an ideal format for e-books because it doesn’t normally allow for re-flowable text: a PDF is like a photograph of a printed book page, so you can’t adjust the font size or style.
ePub is the closest we have to an industry standard e-book format, as it’s used by Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Apple, and others — pretty much everyone other than Amazon. ePub is based on HTML, and allows for re-flowable text (so you can increase or decrease the font size, which is an important feature for e-book readers) and other e-book features.
MOBI is the other big e-book file format, and may be the most popular of all since it’s the format used by Amazon and read by the Kindle — the most popular e-book platform. MOBI, also called PRC, is quite similar to ePub, as it’s also based on HTML and has many of the same features, like re-flowable text. (There’s really no advantage or disadvantage to ePub vs. MOBI, they’re essentially the same.)
There are a few other minor formats, like LRF (the old Sony Readers used this), PDB (Palm Pilot format), and regular old TXT (plain text) or RTF (rich text) formats — like you might see on your computer.
While all of that sounds confusing, the part most people don’t realize is that the format doesn’t really matter. There are plenty of free computer programs that will quickly and easily convert one file format to another (my e-book file format conversion / organization program of choice is called Calibre, and it’s free). So, if you can convert ePubs to MOBI and PDFs to LRFs, what’s the problem? (Sure, it’s an extra step and a bit of a hassle, but really not that big of a deal.)
The problem lies in another acronym altogether: DRM. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and it’s a type of copy protection that many publishers and retailers add to e-books in order to prevent piracy (unauthorized copying and distribution). DRM has plenty of plusses and minuses I’ve discussed before and won’t get into right now, but publishers are pretty enamored with it for the moment, so the fact is that most best-selling e-books from most retailers have DRM attached.
When DRM is added to an e-book, it prevents that e-book from being converted from one file format to another. So, if it has DRM, you’d be blocked from converting a MOBI e-book you bought from Amazon to the ePub format to read on a Nook (and vice versa).
Even worse, it also prevents e-books from being read on a different e-book reader — even one that reads the same format! So, while Nooks and Sony eReaders both read the ePub file format, an e-book bought from B&N that has DRM attached can not be read on the Sony eReaders! There are a few exceptions (I believe Sony e-books can currently be read on Nooks but not vice versa), but generally e-books with DRM attached that are bought from one retailer can only be read by that retailer’s corresponding e-book device:
- Amazon.com e-book store: Kindle e-reader
- BarnesandNoble.com e-book store: Nook e-reader
- Sony eReader Store: Sony eReaders
- Kobo.com e-book store (also Borders.com): Kobo e-reader
- Apple iBook Store (currently only available through iDevices): Apple iPad, iPhone, & iPod
Wait, it gets even better. You can’t read a DRMed, ePub-formatted e-book purchased from B&N on your Sony e-reader … even though both e-readers (the Nook and Sony) both read ePub files … and both use the same type of DRM by Adobe. But B&N uses a newer version of the Adobe DRM that the Kobo doesn’t support, so you’re out of luck. It’s madness.
Now, I’ve probably made clear my stance on DRM (if it’s this confusing and restrictive for legitimate, paying customers, I can’t be a huge fan of it), but one important thing I hope you get from this article is that it turns out the e-book format isn’t really important: it’s easy to convert any e-book format to any other e-book format with the right free software. But books with DRM attached — no matter what format and no matter where you buy them — can cause issues if you try to read them on a different device than they were originally intended for. That means, for most e-books sold by large publishers, you’re stuck in one e-book “ecosystem.”*
* Note: Amazon, B&N, and Kobo each make e-reading apps that allow you to read their e-books on various devices, including Macs, PCs, Android phones, and iDevices, so this alleviates the problem somewhat.
There is some good news here. As I said, most best-sellers from large publishers have DRM attached. But there are literally millions of e-books out there without DRM attached — which means that, no matter what format you find them in, you can easily convert them to any format you need, even years later if you get a new e-book reader. (Of course, since it’s so easy, most DRM-free e-books will already come in multiple formats, and you can just pick the one you need anyway.) So, where can you find DRM-free e-books?
- Project Gutenberg. They have hundreds of thousands of public domain titles — books that were written before 1923 and are no longer under copyright. This includes many of the greatest works of literature of all time, including Pride & Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, The Odyssey, The Count of Monte Cristo, all of Shakespeare’s works, and many more.
- Smashwords. Looking for something a bit more modern? Notice how I said earlier that most books from large publishers have DRM attached. Many smaller publishers and independent authors decide not to attach DRM to their e-books. Smashwords specializes in inexpensive, DRM-free e-books (in multiple formats) from independent authors.
- Amazon and B&N allow independent authors to upload their own e-books for sale — and they give us the option to use DRM or not. I’ve chosen to release my books in both places without DRM, so you can buy my e-books from Amazon and convert them to read on your Nook or wherever you want. (Hint: if the e-book says “Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited” on Amazon.com, it’s DRM-free.)
- Directly from authors. I, and several other independent authors, will sell e-books directly through our own websites in multiple formats, with no DRM attached. (A Google search of your favorite indie author’s name should pull up their website.) With books bought directly from me, I’ll not only send you whatever format you need, but you can always email me down the road if you end up needing another format and don’t want to fuss with converting it yourself. 😉
There are many other places to find legal, DRM-free e-books (both free public domain books and paid newer releases), these are just a few to get you started. Of course, if you’re sure you’re going to stick with one e-book / e-reader “ecosystem” (maybe you love Amazon and your Kindle and plan to stay with them forever), then DRM might not matter to you. But hopefully you’re now more aware of the interaction between e-book file formats and DRM, and what you can and can’t do with the e-books you purchase.
DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, is a form of copy protection sometimes embedded into electronic media (like e-books, MP3 music files, etc.). Its purpose is generally noble: prevent piracy (unauthorized copying and distribution of copyrighted material) so that the content creators (authors, musicians, publishers) can earn the money they deserve for their work.
NOTE: If your stance is that copyright is evil and “all information wants to be free” and that people shouldn’t get paid for creating music or writing a book or researching a newspaper article (but that you should get paid for fixing people’s computers or writing car dealership advertisements or whatever you do for a living), then I don’t think we’ll see eye to eye and you may as well move on to another blog.
But here’s the problem with DRM: it generally doesn’t prevent piracy, since almost all forms of DRM have been hacked, and it just ends up annoying legitimate, paying customers. So the pirates strip out the DRM and continue sharing files illegally, and the actual customer (who we as content creators should be bending over backwards for) is annoyed, limited in how they can use the music or e-book they purchased, and sometimes has to buy it again just because they got a new computer or e-book reader. Lame.
Let me give you a simple example to explain why DRM is broken: I have a few MP3 songs on my computer. Most of them came from old CDs that I had bought. I bought a few from Apple through iTunes several years ago. They’re all mixed together, and I don’t really remember which songs came from which source — except that I was forcefully reminded of it when I tried to do something as simple as transfer the songs to my wife’s iPod.
Now, let’s make this clear: I own the music. I own the Mac. I own the iPod (OK, I’m borrowing my wife’s iPod for a trip). I listen to the music on the Mac, and now want to listen to it on the iPod. No piracy is going on.
I go to copy over all my music onto the iPod and get an error — iTunes tells me that certain songs (the ones I had purchased through iTunes) are copy-protected and can not be used on my wife’s iPod. Now think about this for a second. Had I pirated (stolen) the songs, I could copy them over no problem. But since I paid for them, I can’t do something as simple as listen to songs on an iPod? What? (NOTE: there might have been a way to authorize the iPod or blah blah, but at that point I was just frustrated and didn’t want to troubleshoot and figure out something that shouldn’t be that difficult.)
Now, when I offer a product (like my e-books over there in the right-hand column) for sale, I want to provide a quality product at a fair price. I want my customers to get a pristine file, the best one available. I ensure that it looks good, has no formatting problems, no typos, and it’s the newest and best version. If someone is paying me money, I want them to have a pleasant, easy experience. I want them to get value for their money — so even if there were a pirated version of my e-books floating around out there, I want the customer who buys from me to get a superior product. I want their $2.99 to buy them peace of mind (knowing they’re doing the right thing and supporting the author), a pristinely-formatted file, “tech support” if they have issues with it, and the ability to legitimately use that file and enjoy it — even if they trade in their Nook for a new Kindle 3.
And that’s why I don’t put DRM on my files (NOTE: e-books you buy directly from my website have no DRM, and neither do my e-books at Amazon, B&N, or Smashwords. Apple, Kobo, and Sony currently put DRM on files and there’s no way for me to opt out of it, like I did with Amazon.) If a customer asks, I’m also happy to send them my e-books in any other format they’d like. It’s not that I support piracy — in fact, I think many “anti-DRM” arguments are actually “I want stuff for free” rationalizations. And I’m not supporting taking DRM off files that have it — that’s against the law. But I personally generally avoid buying files that have DRM attached — there are plenty of DRM-free e-books out there that I choose to buy instead.
So, back to my song problem. I have the iPod connected, and my choice is now: (a) buy another copy of these songs through my wife’s account or figure out how to “authorize” her iPod, (b) not have the songs I paid for on the iPod, (c) find a way to download something to strip the DRM off the files (against the law), or (d) download pirated copies of the songs I paid for and not have to deal with DRM at all (also illegal, but by far the easiest and quickest solution). This is why, in my opinion, DRM is broken: it doesn’t actually stop piracy, it just annoys legitimate customers — even to the point of pushing them toward piracy! Maybe someday they’ll invent some better, less invasive form of DRM, but the way it is today just sucks.
So, what would you do? And why should DRM force purchasers to make that choice?