Tag Archives: ebooks

COSLINE 2010 Ebooks Presentation

I had the pleasure of presenting on eBooks to the Council of State Library Agencies of the Northeast recently, and being on vacation this past week has made me later than I wanted at getting my slides online. I had a great time, met some really thoughtful and smart librarians…if this group is the leadership for public libraries in New England, they are in very capable hands.

Here are my slides, for what they are worth. I attempted to do an audio recording of my presentation, but jumping in and out of Keynote makes the timing on it all wonky. I’ll see if I can’t edit it together into something that makes some sense, but that may take some time. For now, here are the slides, sans voice:

eBooks, filetype, and DRM

This morning I got a tweet from Bobbi Newman that said:

librarianbyday

Can someone explain to me the tech reasons Kindle doesn’t work with library ebooks, know its DRM, want more specific plz & thnx @griffey

More than you ever wanted to know about filetypes, DRM, and eBooks…here we go.

There are two different things going on when someone tries to open an eBook file on an eReader. One is filetype…how the file itself is organized internally, how the information contained within is encoded. This is analogous to the difference between a Word file saved as a .doc file, a Word file saved as a .docx file, and an Powerpoint file (.ppt). All are different filetypes…the program involved in the creation, editing, and display of those files describes the information contained inside. Right now, there are two main filetypes being used to describe eBook files: the Amazon eBook standard, or .amz file, and the ePub file (.epub) that is used by just about every other eBook vendor.

Amazon  purchased Mobipocket (an early ebook vendor/distributor) way back in 2005, and used their format as the basis for their current proprietary .amz filetype. ePub, on the other hand, is an open, XML based eBook standard, and is used by a huge number of eBook vendors…indeed, it’s easily the standard for current ebook publishing.

But filetype is only half the battle. In addition to the way the file is organized/structured internally, there is also Digital Rights Management to deal with. Think of DRM on an eBook as a lock, with your eReader having the key to open the lock and display the file. Without the lock, the eReader can’t open the file at all…can’t even see what it is. And if it has the key, but can’t read the filetype, that’s no good either…in that case, you can view the contents of the file, but will have no idea how to render it on the screen properly.

Amazon, in addition to using a proprietary filetype, also uses a proprietary DRM mechanism. This means in order to read an Amazon-purchased eBook, you have to have an eReader with the right key, as well as the right interpreter for the file. So far, that means that you have to be using a Kindle, or alternatively, using the Kindle software provided for any number of other devices (Windows, Mac, iOS devices, Android devices). This doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be. Amazon could choose, tomorrow, to remove all DRM from their files. This would mean that you’d still need a program to interpret the .amz, but you wouldn’t need the key anymore. Conversely, Amazon could license their DRM to other eReaders, in effect handing them the key…but it would still be up to the eReader itself to be able to display the .amz file.

Vendors that use the ePub format have chosen different sorts of DRM to lock up their content. Apple and their iBook app use the ePub format, but wrap it up with their Apple-specific Fairplay DRM. This means that while the file itself would be readable by any device that can interpret an .epub file, without that particular key on their keyring, the eReader can’t do anything. Sony, Barnes & Noble, Overdrive, and other eBook vendors have chosen a shared DRM solution. They license their DRM from Adobe, and run Adobe Content servers that provide the keys to epub files that they sell. This means that if an eReader has the key to one of those stores, it has the key to all of them…think of it as a shared master key for any Adobe DRM’d file.

This illustrates why, although both Apple and B&N use epub as their filetype, you can’t buy a book from the B&N store and then move it over to your iBook app on your iPad. Conversely, you can’t buy something on the iBook store, and then move it to your Nook. Same filetype, different lock.

Overdrive, in supporting Adobe DRM’d epub files, work with Sony eReaders as well as the B&N Nook…same filetype, same DRM key to unlock them.

With all that said: any eReader that will read a given filetype will read said filetype if the file doesn’t have any DRM. So if you convert an existing document to an epub using software like Calibre, Sigil, or InDesign, that file will able to be read on a Nook, Sony Reader, AND the Apple iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch. If you have some text and you convert it to, say, a Mobipocket file (.mobi or .pdb) then it would be readable on the Kindle AND the Apple iBooks app…but not on the Nook. For a complete list of eReaders and their corresponding filetypes, there is no better place than Wikipedia’s Comparison of eBook Formats article.

While a DRM free eBook ecosystem would clearly be the best for the consumer (choice of device, free movement of files from device to device, etc), the second best option is an ecosystem where the DRM is ubiquitous and the patron doesn’t even realize it’s there. This was the case with Apple and the early battles for music sales on the ‘net…they had the store and the distribution network (iTunes) as well as the device used to access the content (iPod). All of the content was, originally, DRM’d, but largely no one noticed since it was completely invisible for the average user.

The biggest issue with eReaders and library patrons is that this chain isn’t seamless. The content providers and their DRM servers are huge headaches for the average eReader user. My hope is that publishing goes the same way that music did, we we find both a common filetype and lose the DRM. But it took digital music years and years to get there…so I’m not holding my breath.

I hope that helped, but if it didn’t and you still have specific questions about your situation with eReaders/eBooks, ask away in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Ebook (in)sanity

I just had a brief piece published over at Library Journal entitled Ebook Sanity. It was something that just poured out of my head unchecked one day, and I was lucky enough to find a home for it as a part of the build up to the upcoming Library Journal Ebook Summit. Here’s a very short teaser:

…consider the idea that the First Sale principle doesn’t apply to ebooks and other digital content. Maybe this is the fact: information in the digital age is such a different beast than in the print age that we not only shouldn’t draw analogies but we actually can’t.

I hope that you head over and read it. Also take a look at the other excellent essays linked off the side from Eric Hellman, Barbara Fister, and Char Booth (holy hell how did I end up in a set with those people? I’m so not worthy). I would love to hear any thoughts you might have on the topic…I’m still forming my conclusions around some of these issues. How do you think libraries can and should react to ebooks?

Delaying ebooks

I was going to blog about the recent article describing how publishers are going to be slotting ebooks into their traditional Handcover-then-Paperback release schedule. I was going to point out that treating digital objects like physical objects has never worked, will never work, and to expect it to work is a fundamental error of modern media.

I was going to do that, but then Chad Haefele over at Hidden Peanuts did it for me. Go read it.

From his post:

Scribner has created an ecosystem where piracy is literally the only option for potential customers who would otherwise line up to give them money, AND that piracy delivers what’s actually a superior product with no DRM.

Yep, that’s pretty much what they’ve done. And, like the music industry, they are going to shoot themselves right in the foot.

Drowning in eReaders

I’m in the middle of writing an issue of Library Technology Reports on Gadgets in your Library, focusing on personal electronics (eReaders, personal media players, cameras, audio recorders, etc). I’ve been drowning in electronic readers lately, starting with the Barnes & Noble Nook finally shipping and going all the way through a myriad of hardware vendors that are jumping into the eReader space. A few of the eReaders that might not be on everyone’s radar:

Ebooks, copyright, and the University of Virginia

I’m in the middle of writing a book about Mobile Technologies and Libraries, and am researching libraries providing mobile-specific services of all sorts. I came across the University of Virginia’s Ebook Library, and decided to take a look at what they are offering. It’s a very old ebook collection, with the original Etext division starting in 1992. Here’s the part that made me scratch my head…it’s in their Access and Conditions of Use:

While many of these items are made publicly-accessible, they are not all public domain — the vast majority of the images, and a number of the texts, including all of those from the University of Virginia Special Collections Department, are copyrighted to the University of Virginia Library, for example, and a number of other texts are still copyrighted to their original print publishers and made available here with permission.

I have no qualms with the texts that are copyrighted by their original publishers, and that UVA got permission to use. My eyebrows raise at the bit about “including all those from the University of Virginia Special Collections Department, are copyrighted to the University of Virginia Library…”

Really?

I had my suspicions here…it’s not like the UVA Special Collections Department are writing books, right? After look around, I found this text: Po’ Sandy by Charles W. Chestnutt. Published in 1888 in the Atlantic Monthly in New York, it is clearly in the public domain in the United States. But there it is, in the front matter:

Copyright 1999, by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

Looking around just a bit, it looks like this shows up on all sorts of texts that UVA digitized. My favorite is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, completed in 1788 by Franklin but the particular version republished by UVA was published in 1909 by P. F. Collier & Son Company in New York. Also, without any doubt, in the Public Domain in the US. It also has the note:

Copyright 1999, by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

What gives UVA the right to claim copyright on these texts? They couldn’t have legally digitized them if they weren’t in the Public Domain at the time of their digitization, and changing the form of something doesn’t give you the right to claim a copyright, especially on the bits that make the work up. Even stranger, they aren’t just claiming copyright, but including a EULA!

By their use of these ebooks, texts and images, users agree to follow these conditions of use:

  • These ebooks, texts and images may not be used for any commercial purpose without permission from the Electronic Text Center.
  • These ebooks, texts and images may not be re-published in print or electronic form without permission from the Electronic Text Center. However, educators are welcome to print out items and hand them to their students.
  • Users are not permitted to download our ebooks, texts, and images in order to mount them on their own servers for public use or for use by a set of subscribers. Individuals and institutions can, of course, make a link to the copies at UVa, subject to our conditions of use.

Really? Is UVA asserting rights here that they just do not have? Not permitted to republish? Only if there is a copyright concern…which I think that UVA is asserting incorrectly here. It’s possible that there is some piece of copyright law that they are leaning on for these claims, but on the face of it, this seems like over reaching. Can anyone explain to me how they could possible have legitimate copyright claims on things that they didn’t create and are beyond the time limit for copyright protection in the US?

Ebooks explode this week

This week, ebooks were all over the tech news, and there were at least two huge announcements. Well, one announcement, and one not-so-secret launch coming Monday.

The announcement was the Google Book mobile service, which gives users access to 1.5 million books from the Google Book scanning project OCR’d and formatted for mobile screens, like those of the G1 and the iPhone. In one fell swoop, Google has made these platforms the home of the largest electronic book library in the world…the Amazon Kindle store currently has 230,000 books, while Project Gutenberg has just over 100,000.

The upcoming announcement is that almost certainly on Monday, Amazon will announce the Kindle version 2. Leaked photos make the v2 look sleeker, more updated, and with much better physical form-factor. What I’m most excited about is the possibility of v.2 of the software, which better UI and possibly more features. As long, of course, as the software is ported back to the original hardware.

Are these the things that will finally push ebooks firmly into the public consciousness? Time will tell, but I can hope.

Kindle in flames?

Two days before I received my Kindle, Roy Tennant published an article on his Digital Libraries blog entitled “Prediction: The Kindle goes down in flames“. I normally agree with Roy on lots of things, but this is a topic where I’m going to pick on him a little.

Let’s rewind to October of 2001, where a plucky little company named Apple released a strange new product called an iPod. With 5 gigabytes of storage, this pocket-sized marvel cost….$399. What did it do? It played music. That’s all it did. Moreover, it only connected to your computer via an esoteric plug called “Firewire” that 90% of the personal computers in the world didn’t have.

It took Apple 3 financial quarters to sell over 200,000 of them, and it wasn’t until 2004 and the cost per gigabyte dropped under $20/GB and the iPod was on it’s third generation that sales really took off.

The Kindle, for all the publicity it has garnered, is only 8 months old. Is it the perfect reading device? I’m not sure yet. I’ve been consuming ebooks for years, beginning with reading them on my Handspring Visor Deluxe in mid-2000. I’ve read them on cell phones, computer screens, and other PDA’s. And I can say without any reservation that after 24 hours with the Kindle that it is a completely new and better reading experience.

The advantages for the Kindle are twofold: a device customized for reading makes reading easier, and the device comes from Amazon. The Kindle is great for reading, not suffering from the issues that, for example, the iPhone might…primarily the issue that an LCD screen just isn’t very good for reading in any form of bright light. The device is driven by Amazon, who has the reach and power in the publishing industry to get books for the device (take a look at the difference between any other ebook provider’s numbers and Amazon’s). Amazon also has the infrastructure to support immediate electronic delivery of any ebook they carry, directly to the device. Anyone else doing that?

The Kindle does several things (it does not, contrary to Tennant’s assertion “only read books”). It allows for reading, annotating, bookmarking, dictionary lookup, and other common reading chores. It also comes with permanent free cellular internet service. Amazon Whispernet gives you, while not a full web experience, a browser and access to the ‘net anywhere you can get a Sprint cell signal. For no additional cost past the cost of the device. Seriously, how much is that worth over a year?

With all that said, I’ve only had the Kindle for less than 48 hours. I wasn’t going to buy one so early in the development cycle, but do I regret having one now? Hell no. It’s a marvelous piece of technology for readers, and I fully expect that in a couple of years I’ll still be toting it around from conference to conference in lieu of a few pounds worth of wood pulp.

If anyone wants to take a look at the Kindle, find me at ALA Annual, and I’ll happily let you play with it. Just holding it, seeing the screen, and seeing how much thought went into the design will make a difference, I promise.

EDIT

Steve Lawson, in the comments, pointed out something that I wanted to address. Tim O’Reilly, in a comment on Roy’s post, says:

“I also struggle with Amazon’s DRM and sole-source approach, which seems to me to be a flawed copy of Apple’s iPod strategy, missing not only Apple’s brilliant design but also the positive externality that consumers could easily add their own music collection to the device by ripping mp3s.”

I am no fan of DRM, and I admit that it gives me pause regarding the Kindle. That said, the “sole-source” approach isn’t true…the Kindle happily ingests any .mobi file you want, and there are plenty of places sourcing native Kindle files of public domain books. First thing I did was put a few dozen of my favorite classics on there, for free. As well, if I had an easy way to digitize the books I already own (in the same rough manner of the digitization of my CDs) I would be doing it, and adding them. The issue there isn’t with the Kindle, it’s that there is no easy digitization of dead trees.