The problem with electronic books

I love my Kindle. I love this thin, light tablet that I can read both at the desk and in bed. I love the ease of getting new books, and I love when the fresh issue of The New Yorker downloads itself. I have read more books in the last year because of the Kindle, but I also paid more for books that I otherwise would have borrowed from the library. On the balance, I think ebooks are great and the way of the future, but we must watch out for some problems with those ebooks that use closed, proprietary formats.

Regardless of format, ebooks have some compelling advantages over traditional printed books. First, ebooks can last infinitely. With printed books, it is entirely conceivable that a rare, out-of-print edition will simply disappear because its physical form is weak and vulnerable to wear and destruction. Ebooks are easy to back up. The cost of making each additional copy is practically zero. Ebooks after all are computer files like Word documents or JPEG images. That’s why ebooks are also enormously portable. A thousand-volume paper-based library is to a thousand ebooks as an elephant is to a pet lizard. The publishing costs are also much lower for new books because authors create them in an electronic form, and there is no need to typeset them or to buy thousands of pounds of paper to print them. There is also no need for expensive brick-and-mortar stores with a large sales staff. Ebooks are sold or given away for free online. This is especially handy if a single corporation dominates your country’s printed book market. In fact, anyone can publish an ebook online potentially reaching millions at a relatively miniscule cost. Finally, think of all the trees ebooks save.

But there are serious problems with ebooks, mostly when they come in closed, proprietary formats. A closed format means that its owner (e.g. a book distributor like Amazon) controls what you can do with the book. The proprietary format owner can hide the details of how the format works making it more difficult to build alternative ebook readers. For example, opening Word documents with non-Microsoft software is not as perfect as opening them with Microsoft Word. But most text editors are equally good at manipulating plain text or HTML files, which are open formats. The ebook format owner can enforce its control with the law (e.g. patents) or technology (e.g. encryption). In some jurisdictions, it is also unlawful to circumvent encryption of proprietary-format media. Amazon protects many of the books it sells with such technology also known as Digital Rights Management (DRM).

Because many ebooks have closed formats, publishers appear to license books to readers rather than sell them. It’s easier to control use of a licensed electronic product than of printed, physical books. We can’t easily share proprietary-format, protected ebooks. You can’t just email an ebook you bought from Amazon to your friend. Amazon locks each protected book to the Kindle of the person who bought it. Your friend can’t read your ebook on his or her Kindle. It’s also harder to overcome regional restrictions. Before, if a publisher sold a book only in the US, you could still bring it to Canada. Now, publishers can make it harder through DRM. Publishers can also use DRM to control libraries or to exclude them from certain books completely assuming some books are available only in electronic format. You can’t easily photocopy a page from an ebook if it’s in a closed format. Of course, if it uses an open format and it’s not DRM-protected, you can copy any text from the book anywhere and any number of times taking full advantage of its electronic nature. In some cases, if the book is in a proprietary format, the publisher or distributor can even delete your book remotely. The closed format and the need to protect digital content also strips most buyers of their anonymity. You cannot buy a book online anonymously. Usually, the book distributor has a record of every book you purchase. This could chill freedom of thought in a future where all ebooks are in a closed format because people would hesitate to buy books seen as dangerous to their reputation.

Finally, closed formats live only as long as their corporate owners. As I was enjoying The Black Swan on my Kindle last night, I wondered what would happen to my copy if Amazon were to go under. The reading device would eventually break down, and its battery would stop functioning even sooner. I would still be able to read the book with Kindle software on my Mac, but if Amazon disappeared, its software would eventually stop working on future computers. At the end, I would be left with a useless file that no one can read.  It’s not a huge loss for a $10 book, but what if I invested $10,000 in proprietary-format ebooks? What if some books are available only electronically and only through a single distributor in the future? Is it so far-fetched? Or is it far-fetched that a large bookseller could vanish one day? With closed, proprietary ebook formats, we could end up with a single point of failure in not so distant future endangering our investment in books and our literary heritage.

Pulat Yunusov

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