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By Steve Swettenham September 27, 2011 - 3:58pm Comments (9)

Everytime I come across a technology that professes to be forward thinking I harken back to the words of the Marshall:

"We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future."
Marshall McLuhan

An ebook is nothing more than print to digital format.  People who have been using the web and PDF have already had ebook functionality.  Apple iBook reads PDF's.  ePub wants to be the standard in electronic books.  Does it really matter if the ePub is more XMLish than PDF?  After all, both formats are export outputs, not master documents such as ASCII Text or word processing documents.

Obviously the real interest in re-inventing the book as an 'e-book' is entirely capitalistic.   Any e-book that has DRM attached may as well be digital dust as it has no digital archival characteristics.  The most interesting aspect to me is how humanity en mass seems to be moving toward a rental state of life where everything is disposable; including the digital stream.  The idea of preservation and permanence seem to be as quantum as human societies stability.


epub is to books what email attachments were to fax machines




  • Currently I don't dabble very much with e-books, but I do find Google Books a very useful tool when I know I cannot get my hands on print material while I am doing course research. Books, unfortunately are sometimes unavailable or there are pages missing (Google cannot offer a preview of the whole book), but it is still a useful tool, especially since I am pursuing my degree from Finland...

    Carmen Pekkarinen September 27, 2011 - 11:54pm

  • Carmen, I appreciate and agree that Google previews can be very helpful; however, Google's forays into the book biz tend overall to be more part of the problem than the solution. See "Five ways the Google Books settlement will change the future of reading."

    As for DRM books, Steve, your criticisms are spot-on and well worded. My go-to Exhibit A in the case against DRM books is the one in which Amazon, the Big Brother of the book biz, remote-deleted an edition of Orwell's 1984 from the Kindles of users who had bought it. The issue was something about copyright, naturally, but it made for an ironic reminder that DRM means you rent, you don't buy. No lesser an authority than the US Federal Court of Appeals decided as much, in its ruling from a year ago about iTunes "purchases":

    a federal appeals court in San Francisco on Friday ruled that songs downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store are not actually purchased, but are rather “licensed” by the ostensible buyer.


    Mark A. McCutcheon September 28, 2011 - 1:01pm

  • Melville House Press has been experimenting with 'hybrid' books - their 'Duel' series of novellas is available in analog and digital format, but there is an added digital component using a QR code (a better explanation is here).


    "An ebook is nothing more than print to digital format." Yes, but digital formats can have a democratizing effect. Books available in digital format are accessible for visually impaired readers, for example. A friend of mine is blind and relies on audiobooks from the CNIB or books in epub or daisy format in order to be able to read. With ebooks, he can choose to have it read aloud with JAWS or to flow it through a braille reader. Resources like Project Gutenberg and Manybooks are making literature widely and easily available, and experimentation with the form - as in Melville's hybrid books - is starting to take place.


    With regards to DRM - I'm not necessarily against it so much as I am concerned about cloud computing and the so-called 'physical' location of my files. I use ebooks extensively, and they're frequently tied into an Adobe account for the DRM (which also coordinates with my local public library, via Overdrive, for delivery of content). The Amazon deletion event was possible because an unauthorized copy of a book was 'clawed back' after they discovered that it had been sold by a third party vendor. This is why I don't use a Kindle - I manage my own ebook library and store the files myself.  I also don't pirate books, though - I respect copyright - so DRM generally isn't an issue. My devices are authorized; I transfer files by tethering them to my PC. I've had to move my files over because of hard drive loss, but I've been able to authorize a new computer to the old device.


    My own preference? To see a better, standardized delivery of content. Epub seems to be the standard; DRM will, I think, likely take a while to resolve itself, but I don't think it's unreasonable for publishers (and writers!) to want to protect their work against piracy.

    Heather Clitheroe September 29, 2011 - 12:31pm

  • (though, to be honest, I haven't invested much time in learning about the DRM divides.)

    Heather Clitheroe September 29, 2011 - 12:45pm

  • No, it's not unreasonable for publishers and writers to protect work from piracy. But what gets called "piracy" these days covers a much broader field of quite different activities than it did, say, during the Wat Tyler affair, in which Robert Southey's radical play (Wat Tyler), which he wrote when young, was pirated and published by a radical printer to embarrass Southey after he turned conservative apostate as Poet Laureate. That's old-school piracy. These days it means not just that, but many forms of copying, some of which are eminently legitimate. Lawrence Lessig's free e-book Free Culture has a chapter that deconsructs the loaded term "piracy" better than I've room to do here.

    What I object to about DRM is twofold: its principle and its protection. Its principle is that the producer claims a right over not just the sale but the use of a product. My object to its protection is twofold as well: 1) protecting DRM in copyright law creates an incentive for producers to digitally lock (and control the use of) more and more content; and 2) because -- as the government itself has stated -- DRM is not "IP"; it is not subject to copyright, so should not be covered by any copyright law. There are some pretty serious constitutional questions for Bill C-11 to persist in seeking to protect DRM under copyright law.

    Mark A. McCutcheon September 29, 2011 - 2:49pm

  • </soapbox>

    Mark A. McCutcheon September 29, 2011 - 3:03pm

  • I try to stay away from DRM protected work whenever possible. The argument that each copy should be purchased doesn't take into account the cost (actually lack thereof) of copying a digital work versus paper work. So I really see it as a cash grab as opposed to a legitimate cost. I realize one less purchase is not much, but it does make me feel better to not contribute to an infrastructure I do not support.

    It seems to me, that if the issue was really piracy, would it not be sufficient to use digitally key the file when a work is purchased? Then if the work is re-distributed for profit a normal copyright investigation (physical or digital) would find it and the current fines would be levied. Otherwise, the purchaser can copy to other media as desired. It would all be traceable under an normal investigation. This of course assumes the current copyright laws work for protecting non-digital works. @Mark can you (or have you) given an opinion on the effectiveness of current copyright law for books?

    Eric von Stackelberg September 29, 2011 - 4:38pm

  • Your idea sounds interesting but I'm not technically savvy enough actually to reall grok its feasibility. But your question poses a big "if" -- "if the issue was really piracy." Amidst the first industry reactions to Napster, there may have been a real fear of a more traditional form of media piracy, but if so it was misguided (simply because crappy-sounding MP3s just aren't made to compete with professionally mastered CDs), and in any case it was quickly seized on as an effective rhetorical weapon not to combat piracy as such, but to mystify as piracy other copying and reproducing practices that -- if materially suppressed and symbolically demonized -- could spell bigger profits for big media companies.

    Disturbingly, the rhetoric of "piracy" to construct moral panics that are favourable to stricter copyright legislation has given way to much stronger rhetoric of combatting child pornography and terrorism:

    A music-industry speaker at an American Chamber of Commerce event in Stockholm waxed enthusiastic about child porn, because it serves as the perfect excuse for network censorship, and once you've got a child-porn filter, you can censor anything. (See Doctorow's full article, "Music industry spokesman loves child porn")

    As for your last question, it's well worth a more extensive treatment than I can give it here (maybe something for a blog post). The short version is that the ubiquity and versatility of digital media mean traditional copyright can't work for traditional print, anymore. Whole books, libraries are available online, legitimately and illegitimately. It may not be "piracy," but you're really not observing copyright law if you scan and upload a whole book that  isn't yours on Scribd.

    In closing I'll mention that whether I think print works should be copyrighted is a different question than whether I think copyright works for print. Lessig's aforementioned book offers, in its last chapters, some sensible and practical alternative licensing arrangements and public-domain protections (not only Creative Commons) that would drastically transform copyright as it stands but could really reduce a lot of unnecessary barriers to a cultural commons locked up largely by the contingencies of an absurd history.

    Mark A. McCutcheon September 29, 2011 - 9:37pm

  • I would see that as a copyright violation and it would have to be taken down if the rights holder so desired. Perhaps I will try and describe what I am thinking on the digital side in a blog after I have had a chance to explore Lessig's book. It seems to me whole legitimate libraries online is a positive, the problem is the illegitmate activity.

    Eric von Stackelberg September 29, 2011 - 10:11pm

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