Apple and e-book DRM: Will they? Should they?

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With Apple already firmly entrenched in the realms of digital music and video, it was only a matter of time before the company got into the future of the printed word. But aside from the few hints Apple CEO Steve Jobs dropped at the iPad unveiling last month, relatively little is known about the company’s forthcoming iBookstore.

Case in point: will the e-books that Apple sells contain digital rights management? And, given that Apple has made such a big push to sell music free of DRM restrictions, should the company enforce it on books?

Will they?

The answer is almost certainly yes. While retailers like Apple and Amazon managed to browbeat the music industry out of using protected music files—it was just a scant few years ago that DRM was de rigueur for digital music—publishers are more likely to follow the example of the movie industry, which has retained a DRM stranglehold on its market. While book publishers have not yet seen widespread piracy of their titles to the magnitude that the music industry did, that could be chalked up to the lack of a significantly popular e-reader and easily available unprotected digital copies of texts.

Jobs did acknowledge that the iBookstore would use the free and open ePub standard for its e-books—it’s also the most commonly used format for electronic books, though Amazon has eschewed it in favor of its own standard for its popular Kindle reader. While ePub doesn't have digital rights management built in by default, it does support adding the technology.

One such DRM technology is Adobe Content Server, made by the same fine folks who've brought you Acrobat and Creative Suite. Adobe Content Server supports encrypting documents in both PDF and ePub formats, and the technology is used by many other e-book vendors (though not, as mentioned above, the Kindle).

But in a conversation with our colleagues at Computerworld, Adobe’s senior business development manager Nick Bogaty said that the company had not licensed its technology to Apple. While Adobe has used this to make a big fuss about the lack of portability for e-books bought from Apple, it shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise to anybody who's the least bit familiar with the folks in Cupertino. (Not to mention that many e-book users seem disenchanted with Adobe's system and its promised interoperability.)

For one thing, Apple has had no qualms about foregoing interoperability in the past. The FairPlay DRM system that the company used to protect music and still uses to protect video has never been licensed for use on devices other than Apple’s own. And despite complaints about lack of choice, the locked-in nature of the iTunes ecosystem never seemed to substantially hinder Apple’s sales. Then again, ripping music from a CD was always an option, as was buying music from other sources once Apple started selling unencumbered MP3 files.

Besides, FairPlay is still baked into all of Apple's devices and the iTunes Store, which is the basis for the App Store and presumably the iBookstore as well. Why go to an outside source? Especially one with whom Apple has recently and vociferously (by Apple standards) been at odds.

Should they?

It’s hard for me to argue that Apple should enforce DRM on its titles, especially given my own vocal past protestations to the contrary. That said, as I wrote above, digital publishing remains a nascent industry and it doesn’t yet suffer from the problems the music industry did. With the music industry, DRM was about trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle: CDs were long the predominant form of music distribution, and every single one was packed to the brim with unprotected digital music easily liberated from their confines.

Popular distribution of e-books is still young, and they don't have the downside of having been available in an unprotected digital format. Though the concept has long been around, e-books never quite caught on, in part because there was never a blockbuster iPod-level device for consuming them—reading books on the computer has never appealed to most of the people who’ve traditionally consumed the physical product, and myriad e-book readers have come and gone without catching on.

That’s started to change recently, especially with the advent of the Kindle—the iPad and iBookstore will likely only further e-books' popularity. And that makes things interesting, because it potentially gives the e-book market one thing that the digital music arena never quite managed: two competing, popular, incompatible formats. (Even the combined might of the multitude of Windows Media players and services never posed a significant threat to the iPod and iTunes.)

The use of DRM is the publishers’ way of hopefully avoiding the same terrible fate as the music industry. That eventuality has scared Hollywood too, so movie studios have slammed the lid on all of their content. Frankly, though, it seems to me as though that lockdown has done little to curb piracy with the added result of stifling legitimate innovation (Hulu’s moves to block the watching of its content on TVs is a key example).

DRM has always been a double-edged sword: there’s good intentions behind making sure that those responsible for creating a song, movie, or book are rewarded for their time and work, but any creative effort is only meaningful if it’s consumed by an audience. What good is a book nobody ever reads or a movie nobody ever sees?

One thing that makes me hopeful is that while the ePub format can support DRM, such protection is not mandated by the standard. It remains to be seen whether or not Apple will allow publishers to forego DRM if they want to, but as the Los Angeles Times points out, popular tech publisher O’Reilly Media has come out strongly against DRM, publishing a number of its titles as DRM-free e-books. And, more important, O'Reilly has seen sales increases as a result of those measures.

Then again, it took a long time for Apple to convince the record companies that DRM was hurting them more than helping them—the iTunes Store debuted in 2003 and music DRM wasn’t abolished until 2009. One thing that hastened along its demise was the rise of a DRM-free alternative in the form of the Amazon’s MP3 store, which launched in the fall of 2007. This time, Amazon and Apple entered the field in reverse order, so Apple, as the latecomer, is positioned to potentially shake things up. And who knows what the field might look like six years from now?

For me—as the son of two librarians—the freedom to consume books on my own terms is a key factor for the success of e-books. One of the great joys of reading books is sharing them with others and while some device makers, such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook, have tried to cobble together some functionality for sharing books, the results have been underwhelming. I don’t want to go through a byzantine process for sharing a book when I could just be handing a physical copy to my friend.

The trouble, as so often, is media companies trying to impose the rules of the physical world onto the digital world. News flash, guys: it’s a different world with different rules. Much as you try to jam it in, you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.

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