When Does “Own” Not Mean “Own?”

When Does “Own” Not Mean “Own?”.

Today I sat in on an interesting meeting with two reps from Baker & Taylor. They were at SLS to demo their new ebook product, ED (which stands for Electronic Delivery). While their site looks nice and they have the general idea at this stage of the game, the meeting illustrated everything that is wrong with Digital Rights Management (DRM), ebooks, and publisher paranoia.

Before I rant, though, let me be clear that I think it's great B&T is trying to forge a path here, it's just that the environment in which they are trying to do it is not conducive to a proper implementation. They're on the right track because they let patrons download current, popular fiction and nonfiction titles directly onto their computers and PDAs, but there are definite problems that are out of B&T's control. Also, their reps were good, they were honest about questions we asked for which they had no answer, and they promised to get answers. But the problems… oy.

It's not shocking that they're using Adobe PDF to circulate titles, as it is the most ubiquitous and cross-platform of the formats other than plain text and it has embedded DRM, but we immediately ran into trouble because of it. I leave the dissecting of PDFs to others (David and Dorothea have both spoken to the issues surrounding the format), but here's something I never expected to run into because of Adobe.

If SLS is involved with this product, it will be as the agent for a group purchase by our member libraries. Naturally, each library is going to want to “brand” the ED site with its own logo and a link back to the library's web site. This is what we call “standard operating procedure,” as it helps patrons navigate back and forth and allows the library a little PR. However, we were told today that this would be possible only at great expense because Adobe would require that each branded site be considered separately, which would mean a separate Adobe offline reader for each one. Guess how much that would cost? Go on, guess.

Around $695. Each. Just to have a logo and a link to the library's site on ED's pages! I still can't explain exactly why this is, as I don't understand it myself, but I'd love to find out what kind of crack Adobe is smoking.

Forget for a moment the problems some of the DRM caused even just during the demo. Forget the fact that PDFs are a proprietary format, and let's just say the libraries don't care about a logo and link. The next biggest problem? Defining the word “own.” It's like having Clinton define the word “sex.”

After much debate, we came to the conclusion that if a library purchases titles from ED, it does indeed own them. However, if it stops subscribing to the service, if ED folds the way Gemstar did, or if PDFs are replaced by another format, the library will “own” a file that is completely and utterly useless. You can only download the file from the ED site into an offline reader, and the content automatically expires after a pre-determined date. Even if you set that date to be 1,000 years from now, the title is stuck in that one copy of the offline reader. You can't circulate it, you can't print a paper copy of it, and you can't move it anywhere else. If the hard drive crashes, then you own a file you can't even look at anymore.

I have a real problem with that, as do consumers, libraries, and anyone other than publishers involved with ebooks. This is exactly the kind of mentality that is regressing the ebook movement. The next time someone asks why ebooks aren't taking off, ask them to look up the word “own” in the dictionary.

Until publishers figure out that this isn't going to fly, especially with libraries that have precious few dollars to begin with, you'll continue to see ebooks mainly in one place, the movies.  [The Shifted Librarian]

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