An ATG Original: Finding Solutions & Alternatives in a World Beyond DRM (Part 2 of a 2 part series)

Finding Solutions & Alternatives in a World Beyond DRM

nancy herther - www.lib.umn.eduBy Nancy K. Herther

Librarians believe that the solution to the current crisis with e-books rests with the publishers whose intractable rules for accessing and using e-books have exacerbated problems in both distribution and access. Digital Rights Management (DRM) has proven more effective in exasperating readers and stagnating sales to libraries than in preventing copyright abuse. In the U.S., Congress has shown no interest or significant concern about the issue as the British government has done. As frustrating as this might be for publishers, their fears have led to market instability that can only continue to marginalize their role in the future production of knowledge and information.

Book jobbers, libraries, and booksellers have been stymied in their distribution roles—leaving their clients (book buyers and readers) frustrated and often seeking their own options. Book jobbers, offering middlemen services to publishers and clients, offering clients discounted titles with added services, such as pre-marked and cataloged materials for libraries, are powerless to bargain for their clients in an environment where they have no choice but to pass along whatever publisher-imposed limitations or conditions have been set. Libraries, other sales channels, and readers have no power and little influence in what is available to them.

Aggregation services that have arisen provide no solution and little comfort. They work with a variety of e-book publishers and provide these in single-interface platforms, which have to be contrived to juggle all of the variant requirements of their publisher clients. The resulting access platforms, especially if they include major trade publishers, are generally so rigid and unforgiving that potential users are forced back into the print world.

Saul Carliner

Saul Carliner

“From what I can tell, when it comes to platforms,” explains Quebec’s Concordia University’s Saul Carliner, “it will ultimately be decided by the marketplace rather than efforts on the parts of well-intentioned groups, like standards groups, to bring about a consensus. This is based on an observation of previous technologies in which several standards existed in the market and the basic principle, the best predictor of future performance is past performance. For example, when we had PCs versus Macs, most software publishers produced duplicate versions of their applications and eventually made file formats interchangeable. When experiences started migrating to the Web, we had different browsers that read identical HTML code. But the browsers rendered the HTML statements slightly differently, necessitating an extensive testing process to ensure that the same code had a relatively similar look regardless of the browser and version on which the user viewed the Web page. Then there are the famous VHS versus Beta and Blue-Ray versus I-don’t-remember-the-standard-name for video and DVDs respectively. In each case, a clear winner emerged: VHS for video and Blue-Ray for DVDs. The latter might be a short-lived victory, however, as users are increasingly downloading videos rather than purchasing DVDs.”

Steven Harris

Steven Harris

“I’m not sure we will see standardization any time soon,” University of Nevada Reno librarian Steven Harris predicts. “There are so many competing interests that it’s hard to get everyone on the same page. I’m also not sure whether the aggregator platforms are the problem, rather than the DRM schemas used. But I don’t think DRM will go away either. Some of the larger scientific publishers are able and willing to create their own platforms without DRM, using simple PDF. (Springer comes to mind.) But I also don’t really want a world where I have to license and maintain a separate platform for each publisher. For that reason, I actually like the aggregators. I realize that most of them came to life as a “read online” solution, without downloading in mind. They have to satisfy the publisher fear, however, that everybody will be sharing their content for free if there are no DRM restrictions. That’s a fear most scientific publishers don’t have because we are talking about completely different levels of sales. I think the downloading and user experience will get slowly better.”

Menlo College library dean William Walters sees the DRM issue to be a continuing roadblock to progress: “I don’t see any evidence of standardization in terms of either platforms or file formats, but I may simply have missed it. In my view, the most promising development is that nonprofit publishers seem more willing than commercial publishers to propose less restrictive licensing terms—but that doesn’t really address the issue of interfaces. My personal opinion is that a standard file format would be a major positive development, but I don’t envision it happening anytime soon. E-journal distributors were quick to settle on PDF as the de facto standard, but e-book publishers haven’t done so. I wonder how much of that is due to the perception that proprietary formats give distributors more control over content.”

Current Stalemates Lead to a Lack of Innovation

For publishers, the investment in multiple platforms is a major development cost today, and one that doesn’t benefit users in any significant way. “It all starts with the devices—Kobo, Nook, Kindle, and iBooks,” Carliner comments. “A common standard (ePub) is supposed to exist but not all platforms support it. Unless that changes, this situation creates a long-term problem for the viability of ePub as a common standard. Most device manufacturers prefer, instead, to push their software. To further build the market, most make their software available for other platforms, including Windows, Mac OS, iOS, and Android. The primary exception is iBooks, which doesn’t make options available for non-Apple devices. In effect, this creates a general problem for all publishers, because they need to support several platforms.”

“What’s worse,” Carliner continues, “they also need to support several screen sizes—and this becomes important, too. Although responsive design is supposed to provide a code-once-publish-on-many solution, the reality is that, like HTML code on different browsers, books don’t always render as intended on different devices or break book conventions. For example, as you are probably aware, a ‘widow’ (a heading at the bottom of a page with no text beneath is) is a publishing taboo, as is an orphan. It becomes almost impossible to avoid under this situation. Another issue is floating figures and tables, which may or may not render properly on the many different devices and formats. As a result, most experts advise publishers to produce and test in several formats.”

From Carliner’s research, he sees the different e-book markets settling on different platform arrangements today: “For novels, it seems like most of the publishers are focusing on the big 3–Nook, Kindle, and Kobo—though many are also publishing for the iBooks platform, too. For trade books, many are turning to ePub format or Kindle, because those are the ones that most people are likely to use. That said, however, I have seen some trade books for the iBooks platform, though the ones I have seen do not take advantage of many of the unique interactive features of that platform.”

“For scholarly books,” Carliner continues, “PDF or ePub seem to be the preferred platforms as they are the simplest to produce and have the widest acceptance. My hunch is that there’’ a belief that most people will be reading these on computers or full-size tablets, and linking info in the book with their other research notes. And that leaves textbooks: Apple is vigorously trying to enlist authors for the iBooks platform, with all kinds of incentives. This also leverages the preference in many schools for Macs and the popularity of the iPad and iPhone among young people. Most of the books that Apple is recruiting would be self-published. My experience with publishers is that they are focusing on the other formats, primarily ePub and Kindle though I have a feeling that Nook gets a boost because Barnes & Noble runs many university and college bookstores.”

“But there’s a real issue here that no one is addressing,” Carliner believes. “Given a choice, students still prefer textbooks. There’s an interesting experiment at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario (a community college), which is switching to an all e-textbook approach. But students are complaining that pages are cut off on the tablet versions of textbooks (lending credence to the concern raised with private publishing) and they feel that they cannot annotate books (an issue that’s arisen in the studies that Ann-Louise and I are completing). In addition, some studies have found that e-books have a slightly negative effect on student performance. Other studies have shown that, in general, there’s a slight degradation of reading quality online. But I wonder how more ongoing experience with e-books (like today’s toddlers who are experiencing some of their story time books on tablets) might affect that. Reading online is still a relatively new experience for many, especially students who maintain a preference for printed books (several studies have found this) despite all of the widespread belief that they’re wired like crazy.”

Seeking Solutions That Will Move E-Books to the Next LevelDRM-free -

Are we making any progress with DRM? “Outside of Project Muse and their virtually DRM-free offerings, progress isn’t being made.” Asked what the key problem is, Penn State Press’ Tony Sanfilippo responds: “Capitalism.” Concerns about profit and ownership seem to continue to grip the publishing industry. Although book publishers seem to slowly be opening more opportunities and options for libraries, progress has been painful. “This and all of these questions must be considered in the light of DRM and how DRM impacts both the content and the platforms that offer the content.”

“Because there is a belief that DRM is necessary,” Sanfilippo continues, “the platforms that offer ebooks have been allowed to create independent ecosystems that ostensibly control rights, but in doing so also control audience and broader file functionality and interoperability. The result is a somewhat unusual fracturing of the landscape where products can be isolated within specific markets, so Amazon can’t easily sell to libraries and Project Muse can’t sell to individual consumers. This is of course not at all true of print books. We do not sell print books into some markets with reduced functionality (like the ability to lend) like we do with ebooks. That simple difference, and the closed ecosystems it creates, seems to me to be at the core of why I don’t expect the standards problem to get better anytime soon. There isn’t any motivation for publishers or the platforms to change the larger environment, no matter what customer demand may point to. As long as the e-content market remains lucrative for both publishers and platforms, they have zero incentive to change the status quo.”

Progress in the Evolution of the Book May Help Spur Change

Patricia Tomaszek

Patricia Tomaszek

University of Bergen doctoral student Patricia Tomaszek, concerned about the lack of electronic literature in library catalogs, decided to focus on how the publishing situation for electronic literature and its missing, or inadequate peritexts may contribute to this problem as the focus for her dissertation. “I investigate into the kind of electronic literature known as ‘literature in programmable media’ in which authors program multi-medial works in which text, sound, and (moving) image merges, and where the readers interaction with a work is required to advance reading,” she explains. Examples of this new type of interactive, fully multimedia experience, the Electronic Literature Collection is an excellent place to see how some writers are redefining the future ‘book’ experience. Working independently, at this point, she is testing new paradigms for reading and interaction with the printed word.

University of Puerto Rico English professor Leonardo Flores is another scholar focusing on our evolving digital culture. He believes that “the publishing world is facing two paradigm* shifts. First, its model is based on selling objects (books) in a technological context in which digital objects (ebooks) can be infinitely shared, hacked, cracked, and so on. Second, it is still focused on producing and selling the traditional book in electronic format, and isn’t really taking enough advantage of the multimedia potential of digital media.

Flores believes that “e-literature is a growing grassroots experimental practice of born-digital writing and the publishing world currently has no model to deal with the way it integrates the use of various input devices, data streams, computation, and user interactivity.” As an example, he points to I ♥ E-Poetry  as a good example of how poetry is being re-defined using newer technologies and story-telling techniques that encourage more interaction and exploration. Flores sees a new renaissance coming for the ‘book,’ one that will merge the traditional printed word with newer media and options for interaction with the text, the story development and even with the author.

Jake Hartnell

Jake Hartnell

UC Berkeley School of Information’s Jake Hartnell notes that “the state of ebook publishing is like writers using proprietary ink. This has profound implications for human knowledge! As a consequence, annotations made in many proprietary systems are lost to other systems, publishers and writers of books have a nightmare creating books for all the different platforms, and readers are left with the threat of lock-in and subpar user experience.”

“Like paper books, e-books should be open—free for anyone to read at any time—not locked away with proprietary formats or devices,” Hartnell continues. “Similarly, annotation should not be siloed based on devices or apps. A world of Kindle annotations existing separately from iBook annotations is not a world conducive to collaboration, sharing and open knowledge. At, we want to see annotation flourish into a healthy web standard, a shared space. On the Internet it should always be free to comment, discuss, and learn.”

Books in Browsers is a new conference that has arisen “for the new generation of internet publishing companies, focusing on developers and designers who are building and launching tools for online storytelling, expression, and art.” Hartnell, for one, believes that “the browser is the greatest publishing and reading application of all time,” and works to explore new ways to interleaf print and digital worlds melding smartphones, sensors and game boards, networks, electronics along with crafted books. With web-based production tools and internet standards in place, this area seems to be showing growing maturity and focuses on the growing collection of easy-to-use, compelling ways to engage and collaborate between authors and readers to organically ‘grow’ knowledge and ideas. is one firm (with Peter Brantley and Hartnell on board) working to bring annotation (which they define as “an open platform for the collaborative evaluation of knowledge”). Porter Anderson explains that “everything in the information sphere should be accessible to the thoughts, opinions, and commentary of everyone else, without gatekeepers or delimiters in the way.”

We are seeing the growth of many exciting new paradigms* for publishing on the rise. How will DRM affect the ability to merge the old with the new? “DRM obviously cuts down on sharing, except for people with the technical expertise to crack the files and share them online,” Flores believes. “This places pressure on what I like to call ‘The War on Piracy,’ which much like Prohibition and the War on Drugs is repressive and only partly successful.”

*Notes on Efforts to Mold Better Experiences From Today’s Paradigm
Leonardo Flores, University of Puerto Rico English professor, offers his analysis of current attempts to work with contemporary DRM-laced paradigms:
  • “Amazon with their Kindle devices and free Kindle apps for all platforms is a leader in moving ebooks because it channeled its bookselling power to ebook formats. They produce neat ebook reading devices (Kindles) but they will deliver their content to any device in almost any platform. Their limitations are in that they are limited to the traditional book, using only a fraction of digital media’s multimodal potential.
  • Apple’s iBooks, especially with their free authoring software iBooks Author takes much better advantage of the multimedia capabilities of their devices, allowing for seamless integration of video, images, and so on. Unfortunately, they’re the masters of vendor lock-in practices, so in order to read their iBooks, people need to buy their expensive iPads.
  • Apple’s iOS and App Store—as well as Google’s Android and Play store—are great markets for interactive works that really explore digital writing. Some of the most interesting publishing work done these days is via apps. See: iPoe and iPoe2 by Play Creatividad and The Wasteland app by TouchPress. These are the kinds of works that Bárbara Bordalejo calls “born-again digital” works—they were born in the world of print and have been reimagined for digital environments. The problem with this model is that it requires advanced programming expertise and a commitment to maintaining platform compatibility.
  • Adobe’s Digital Editions is DRM hell. It’s complex, clunky, requires major investments, and their track record for maintaining backwards compatibility is pretty atrocious, judging from how they’ve handled Director and Flash. I address some of these issues in this interview.
  • Some academic publishers are moving towards a model in which they offer free access to their published books online, and sell quality downloads or print editions. Here’s an example and a list of their formats. I like this: It offers the content for free legally, and there’s an added value for purchasing the digital file.”


Progress has been slow in an environment of technological change, entrepreneurial experimentation, and artistic innovation; however, the future of reading, books, and ideas seems brighter today than any time in the past 5 years. With increasing publisher experiments in the library market and the ongoing changes in the creation and transmission of information, perhaps we can soon put the DRM crisis behind us and work together to move e-books (in all their forms) into the hands of readers and the virtual shelves of libraries to everyone’s advantage.


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