Thursday, February 14, 2013

Can Libraries Lend eBooks Without DRM?

Last week I sat through a talk titled "What is a Book?". The speaker was making the point that digital books don't have to be any particular length, so books could be really short or even really really long. The talk then went down a rabbit's hole of ebook technology. That evening, in the hotel bar, the assembled wisdom came to a different conclusion. "The book is a social construct" we declared, and we promised to write blog posts to that effect. Software can try to make the book into something new and more wonderful, but the social construct is more powerful than the technology. Sure, you can copy a digital book endlessly, but people will still think of it as something you buy in a bookstore. You can use "Digital Rights Management" (DRM) software to stop people from making copies, but people will find ways to share it with friends, because that's the social construct built around books.

Libraries have built another powerful social construct around lending books. You would think that libraries would be able to think of a way to do this for ebooks without resorting to DRM software. But noooo! Here's the problem: ebooks aren't print books, and the most popular model for library lending of ebooks is what I call "Pretend It's Print". Only one person can use the ebook at a time. So when one person is "borrowing" the the book, everyone else has to wait their turn. The reason that libraries accept this model is that it would be prohibitively expensive to license a popular book for the use of all of their patrons at once. The downside is that the fictional scarcity of the ebook has to be enforced somehow. Most publishers don't trust that libraries have the technical expertise to securely encrypt files, manage keys, and track licenses to enforce the print-ness of an ebook. So libraries end up lending ebooks only via "platform vendors" such as Overdrive, 3M, EBSCO, ebrary, EBL and others.

There must be a better way.

When the Harry Potter books came out in digital form, it did come out in a better way. If you buy a Harry Potter eBook from Pottermore, it comes as an unencrypted ePub. But your name and purchase info gets embedded in the file as a way to discourage you from posting it on file sharing sites. ("fingerprinting" and "watermarking") As long as you use the ebook the way you would use a book, no software gets in your way. This is commonly known as "social DRM". Unfortunately, to my mind, the "social DRM" label has besmirched a good idea with the stink of a bad one. Cory Doctorow has called social DRM "delusional".  O'Reilly's Joe Wikert compares social DRM to being "a little bit pregnant"  which might seem "a little bit" hypocritical, as O'Reilly's venture with Pearson, Safari Books Online, requires DRM for O'Reilly ebook subscriptions sold to libraries.  uses social DRM for PDF downloads. (updated 2/18/13 based on comments) A more practical view was expressed by Feedbook's Hadrien Gardeur, who suggests that we think of social DRM as "personalization".

English: Librarians against DRM
Librarians against DRM (Wikipedia)
Librarians are nothing if not practical but the strong DRM that's been imposed on them by the incumbent ebook platforms is in conflict with many of the core beliefs of librarianship. (The platform vendors, are in turn required to use strong DRM by the publishers who offer their books for library licensing.) DRM degrades accessibility, fair use, and privacy. Is there a way to use the strength of the library lending social construct to enable an ebook lending system that works without DRM?

The difficult part of this is not so much preventing illegal distribution, but getting users to accept limited lending periods for digital objects. After all, libraries need late fines to enforce limited loan periods even for printed books. With personalization of ebook files and cooperation with reading environments, this could be easily achieved. A "loan certificate" could be inserted into the ebook file, and the reading environment could remind and assist the user to "return" the book. Reading environments could also offer the user a chance to purchase a permanent license for the ebook.

Of course, a knowledgable user could easily circumvent loan expiration, or choose a reading environment that ignores loan certificates but that's beside the point. As long as most of the users respect the social construct of the library, they'll respect their obligations to their library, and the world will be better for it. Many of the expenses and inefficiencies of the current system would disappear. I think it's worth a try.

Overdrive has tried. In June of 2011, they announced a DRM-free lending program, with DRM-free publishers such as O'Reilly and Carina Press. The Overdrive program deals with the "return" issue by not dealing with it at all. It's not possible to return a DRM-free title early, so no one else can "borrow" a DRM-free title for the standard loan period. The effect is to replace the one-reader-at-a-time restriction with a lending-rate restriction. Overdrive seems to have de-emphasized this program. In December of 2011 they notified customers that "DRM has been applied to select DRM-free eBooks" and the announcement of the program has disappeared from their blog.  There's also no indication in the borrowing UI that a title is DRM-free; epubs are just labeled "Adobe EPUB ebook", presumably to prevent users from discovering how easy these files are to use or misuse.

A lot of mainstream publishers would never let libraries lend "unprotected" ebooks. There are exceptions. Springer's ebook collection is available to libraries without DRM. This makes sense because none of the included books are likely to be heavily used- the audience for an academic book is usually quite small. On the other hand, there are DRM-free publishers such as Baen and Tor that currently do not allow library lending at all; they seem to be good candidate for a no-DRM library solution.

I've started talking to people about how these ideas might be implemented- if you have ideas of your own, please let me know.

1. An IDPF working paper has promoted "lightweight content protection" as another way to address the needs of libraries.  The idea in this proposal is to apply just enough DRM to trigger the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA and similar provisions in other countries.
2. Bookshare has used fingerprinting and watermarking as key components of their "Seven Point Digital Rights Management Plan", with good success.
3. Liza Daly has a list of DRM-free publishers.  Now that she's at Safari, maybe something will happen there. you should read her comments. (update 2/18)
4. is another way to remove the need for DRM in libraries.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

One eBook to Prove Them All

I've not written much about it here, but over the past year I've been participating in the American Library Association's "Digital Content Working Group". DCWG is broken up into smaller groups focusing on specific areas. I've been working on "Business Models". At ALA's Midwinter meeting, DCWG sponsored a jam-packed symposium.

The DCWG's meetings at ALA's mid-winter and annual conferences are open for anyone to attend, and they've been covered by the library press. Our recent meeting in Seattle was covered by Library Journal's Matt Enis, and he highlighted an idea that came out of our subgroup, the "One eBook" program:
The American Library Association’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG) has begun exploring an idea that could help publishers better understand the powerful impact that libraries can have for their authors and their bottom line.
I've finally had a chance to write this up for American Libraries' E-Content Blog:

There’s a lot of data suggesting that exposure to books in libraries increases sales for those books. There’s also a lot of data that suggests that many publishers believe the opposite—namely, that the availability of books in libraries depresses sales, and that if libraries improve the ebook lending process, making it easier for library users to substitute loans for sales, then ebook sales will be hurt even more. 
That word “suggests” is the problem. We don’t have controlled experiments that have really measured the broad effect of the library lending of ebooks on ebook sales. ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group has been examining the situation, and we had an idea. What if libraries all around the country promoted a single ebook for a month? What if that ebook’s publisher offered a special deal so that for that one month, libraries could lend that ebook to as many patrons in their communities as possible without decimating their acquisition budgets? Once the month was over, that specially promoted library ebook deal would end. What do you think would happen?
There are a lot of details to work out of course, but we've had a lot of positive reactions. It's the practical and technical details I'm thinking about right now. For example, how can we make such a program available to as many libraries as possible, regardless of whether they are currently offering ebooks? How can we make the ebooks work on all sorts of platforms? How do we make the one-ebook ebooks expire after a month?

As if I didn't have enough to do...

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Anachronisms and Dysfunctions of eBook Front and Back Matter

The process of digitizing a printed book involves much more than the conversion of ink on paper to bits in a file. Functional aspects of the book must be mapped to digital equivalents. Thus we have tables of contents and indices turning into hyperlinks and spine files, page numbers that beget location anchors and progress indicators.

The terms of art for this stuff are front matter and back matter. I'll cover the many dysfunctions of ebook copyright pages in another article, but let's step back for a moment. What is this stuff for for, anyway?

A good example is the bastard title (or half title) page. This a page, usually printed with only the book's title, that precedes the title page in the book. When dinosaurs roamed the earth, the function of the bastard title was to identify and physically protect the paper text block until it was bound. Sort of like the tissue paper they still put in fancy wedding invitations. I daresay that ebooks do not require any such protection. It is utterly without use in an ebook. Begone!

Next, consider the title page. It typically displays the book's title, author, and the publisher.

In a print book, the title page is a declaration of bookiness. You don't have title pages in magazines or newspapers. The title page says "get, ready, here comes a book, so go find a comfy chair."

But a digital book needs something different. It needs a start page. Think about the start screen of a DVD. (You DO remember those, don't you?) Now think a bit more generally. Modern ebooks share their underlying technology with websites, so why not convert the title page of a book into a home page for the book, with the sort of utilities you expect on a home page?

If all we do is replicate the functions of a print book, then we haven't done our 21st century thinking very thoroughly. What kinds of things might an author or publisher want on their book's home page? The ability to share via social networks? Definitely! Probably a channel for conversation. A way to connect to other books from the author and/or publisher? Yes please! Maybe even a usage tracker.

From my perspective, thinking about what our Creative-Commons licences editions should look like, there are a number of front-matter and back-matter tweaks needed. We add lists of supporters, for example. One of the author-publishers participating in, Melinda Thompson (support her book here), had these great suggestions:
The first page of an unglued book should contain only two things: an unglued logo and a small “what’s this?” link. Initially, “unglued” won’t mean anything to anybody, but over time they will learn what it means as some people click the “what’s this?” link and learn more. Once a person clicks on the “what’s this?” link they’d get a very short menu with things listed like: What is an Unglued Book, Rights, How to Share this Book, Supporters, etc. And behind that short menu could be all the details you want.

I would love to see a share button (like you have on the website) at the end of each and every unglued book – inside the book on the very last page. If the whole point of is to give books to the world, then people should be easily able to do that from a technological perspective. People should be able to download an unglued book for free and then, technologically, the book should really be free and easy to share effortlessly via email, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and other social media websites. And, from your branding perspective, people should be able to easily tell your story on your behalf. People should literally, easily be able to give an unglued book to the world.

But it's not just unglued books that need work. Let's look at the book Book: A Futurist's Manifesto, by Hugh McGuire and Brian O'Leary, which is a very interesting collection, by the way.

Here's what it looks like in iBooks. (It's the version released in 2011, though a later version is labeled the first edition.)

Thankfully, these futurists have axed the 18th century bastard title, but the title page itself looks lost. There's not even the customary publisher name.

Here's the PDF embed from scribd:
The title page is dressed up a bit, but hey, it's pdf.

Now take a look at the booky part of the book's homepage, first on O'Reilly's website :

And then on Pressbooks, where it really IS a website.

You can see that this browser version has started down the road to rethinking the front matter.

Look at these homepage captures and think about how many of these functions would work just fine inside an ebook, on an ebook reader intermittently detached from the web. Take out the "buy" buttons, and you have a decent start page for the book. Or leave in some buy buttons if you want to sell print copies or you want to upsell to a deluxe version.

So how do we proceed? These things work better if readers don't have to learn different UIs for every ebook they read, but at the same time, there's no need to leave users in the previous century. Maybe book designers could share their start page designs for everyone's benefit. Wouldn't that be nice? Have you seen an innovative start page on an ebook? What else would you like to see on a book's start page?

Update 4/10/13: Suw Charman-Anderson has a great follow-up post.
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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Consternation Over Ability to Copy and Paste

Over at IPWatchdog, Gene Quinn has responded to what he perceives as rampant copyright infringement by his audience "made up of lawyers, lobbyists, inventors, Staffers, artists" by adding some javascript that blocks copy and paste. Luckily I have Safari and Readability, so it doesn't affect me, but I am concerned for the many communities who depend on copy and paste in one way or another for access to information.

Here is the post, translated in its entirety, for use by those who find it easier to read Igpay Atinlay, than the usual jargon-filled legal mumbo-jumbo:

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Thanks to Timothy Lee for the heads-up.
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