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Understanding the Limitations - and Maximizing the Value - of eBooks

By Conrad J. Jacoby, Published on December 23, 2009

The holiday season is at hand, and many signs suggest that thousands of people are finding themselves new owners of electronic book ("eBook") readers. Whether it's an Amazon Kindle, a Barnes & Noble Nook, a Sony Reader, or any of the less heavily advertised devices currently on the market, electronic book readers are being trumpeted as a product that has finally hit the mainstream after years on the bleeding-edge. eBook readers, in fact, do have the potential to radically reshape how books are read. Equally important, though, they are already reshaping how books are bought and owned.

The printed book is an amazing piece of technology. Light-weight and portable, a hardcopy book requires no electricity and can be used in just about any environment that has sufficient light to show the printed words. And, although it wasn't a primary design objective, printed books are easily archived, surviving—without any loss of information—until the very paper on which they are printed disintegrates. Books made of low-acid rag paper have survived hundreds of years with pages as vivid and as supple as the day they were taken from the printing press.

Books are also more than abstract information. As a printed copy of an author's work, hardcopy books are physical objects that are owned by their purchasers. And, under the long-established First Sale Doctrine, owners of these physical objects have the right to sell, give, or otherwise redistribute books as they see fit. This legal right supports a vibrant used book market as well as the informal practice of lending books to friends and colleagues.

Publishers and distributors of electronic books, however, are using an entirely different model for the distribution of their eBooks. Consumers purchasing eBooks receive only a license, not a full bundle of ownership rights in a tangible object. As a consequence, this considerably limits what consumers can do with their new digital files. For example, few bookstores permit the return of eBooks, since there's no reliable way to tell whether the book has actually been read or not (download records do not indicate whether the file was subsequently opened). Perhaps equally important, under the terms of most current eBook licenses, consumers are generally not permitted to resell eBooks that they have purchased; like computer operating system licenses, the license is personal to them—and often limited to the specific piece of hardware on which the digital file has been installed.

Publishers argue that licensing is an appropriate model because digital eBooks can easily be duplicated without sophisticated technology and resold. Because an eBook cannot be limited to a single copy and because it is not fixed in a tangible form like a video game cartridge or a hardcopy book, publishers believe that licensing is the only legal vehicle that adequately protects their intellectual property rights. To ease criticism, eBook sellers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble have recently relaxed their licensing terms and supported technology that permits an eBook, in limited circumstances, to be loaded by a consumer onto multiple devices. Amazon.com, for example, has released Kindle eBook software for Microsoft Windows-based computers and Apple iPhone and iPod Touch devices that permits these devices to access content purchased through Amazon for its proprietary Kindle eBook reader. Still, these rights are personal to the purchaser, and someone who sells a used eBook reader with copyrighted books still loaded on it may be in violation of their eBook licenses.

Licensing the use of an author's work differs substantially from purchasing a copy. This past summer, pursuant to terms of the Kindle eBook license, Amazon.com recalled (i.e., deleted) an eBook version of George Orwell's 1984 from all Kindle readers on which it was stored. While the company also provided a full refund of the purchase price and later issued an apology for the abrupt way in which the eBook was unilaterally withdrawn, Amazon was legally permitted by the terms of its eBook license to act in the way that it did, and the event highlights the stark difference between licensed and purchased works.

For consumers, the combination of eBook licenses and changing technology can create frustrating practical problems. Unlike printed books that require no special technology to read, electronic books require a "reader" program to decode and display their content. A variety of competing eBook formats have been developed over the years, and as the platforms for some eBook formats have become obsolete, consumers who "purchased" books in these formats are discovering that they must purchase entirely new copies of their existing eBook libraries to use them on a different or more modern device. Long-time users of eReader software (and its password-protected variant, Secure eReader) have discovered that none of the eBooks they have purchased over the past decade or so to read on their Palm and Pocket PC devices, Nokia phones, and desktop computers can be transferred to Kindle, Nook, or Sony eBook readers. Amazon Kindle users are discovering that they have to re-purchase their eBooks if they also want to read them on a Sony Reader or a Barnes & Noble Nook.

On a going-forward basis, a number of publishers and distributors have begun supporting a common eBook format (the "epub" format) that can be read by competing devices and multiple platforms, but the market remains fragmented. Amazon.com, for example, has not joined this initiative, and its Kindle devices cannot natively read epub files at this time. As can be expected, of course, a growing number of vendors offer conversion services of eBooks from one format to another, though it's unclear whether this process is both cost-effective and in full compliance with the user licenses under which most eBooks have been obtained.

Increasing eBook Flexibility

Consumers building an electronic book library can use a few strategies to increase the long-term utility and value of their eBook collections. These strategies won't guarantee that purchased eBooks will continue to be available indefinitely to the reader, but they will help extend the useful life of most eBook collections.

  1. Purchase eBooks from A Multi-Format Distributor

One of the most obvious limitations to purchasing eBooks is that most sellers offer books in only one file format. Thus, while you can buy the same New York Times bestsellers from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble, the Amazon version is only compatible with its Kindle eBook reader, while the Barnes & Noble version can only be loaded on eBook readers that recognize the epub file format (a swiftly growing number, but a minority of the eBook readers already in use).

It doesn't have to be this way. Several open source repositories of books out of copyright, most notably Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org), offer tens of thousands of out-of-copyright books in multiple file formats—for free. For readers interested in more modern literature, some eBook distributors offer some or all of their eBooks in multiple formats that are compatible with virtually all eBook readers and reader software. These virtual bookstores also permit their customers to download a book in more than one format, so first-generation Sony Reader users switching to a more modern eBook reader can load their existing libraries to their new device without having to buy fresh licenses. I am a long-time customer of Fictionwise (www.fictionwise.com), which offers many "back catalog" books (i.e., past books by current authors), as well as some current releases, in multiple formats. Some publishers also offer their eBooks directly to the public as well. Baen Books (www.baen.com), a science fiction publishing house, not only offers all eBooks in its online store in multiple formats, but it also maintains a substantial collection of free eBooks that sample the Baen back catalog.

Publishers, not distributors, control the way in which eBooks can be distributed, however, and not all eBooks are made available through a multiple-format license. Fictionwise, which was acquired by Barnes & Noble in March 2009, offers some fresh releases and bestsellers in eBook formats that can only be read on smart phones, PCs, and MacOS computers—not on dedicated eBook readers like the Kindle or the Nook. For those formats, consumers will need to visit other eBook distributors offering different "editions" of the same books.

  1. Maintain eBook Archives on Multiple Devices

A dramatic advantage of eBooks is that readers can carry their entire eBook library with them on a single device. However, that convenience also makes it possible to lose an entire eBook library if the device is lost or broken. Older eBook reading devices usually required that eBooks be transferred from a PC to the mobile device, creating an automatic archive on the computer should anything happen to a traveling phone, PDA or eBook reader. Beginning with the Amazon Kindle, though, readers have been able to download books directly to their eBook reader, bypassing the PC. This adds tremendous convenience—readers can now purchase additional books even if they are away from their computers—but it also concentrates a reader's eBook library in a single location without a local backup. While Amazon and Barnes & Noble keep records of eBooks purchased from them in the event of a device failure, these online bookshelves track only books purchased from each vendor, not the total library that might be loaded onto a device.

Readers should make sure that their eBook libraries are secure by taking steps to back up their eBook purchases locally in addition to seller-based archives. For devices that show up as external hard drives when tethered to a desktop or laptop computer, backing up eBook files is a simple process of dragging and dropping eBook files onto a different storage location, like a computer hard drive or a USB memory stick. For other devices, such as smart phones and PDAs, it's a good practice to store eBooks on removable storage media (e.g., SD or micro-SD memory cards) instead of the device's internal memory. That way, even if the device itself can't easily be backed up, the storage card can be removed and its contents read by and copied to a host computer. In addition, if the device is broken, a storage card or its contents can easily be transferred to a new device.

Some eBook distributors have utilities that make it easy to create locally stored archival copies of eBooks purchased from them. Fictionwise, for example, will create and download a .ZIP archive file of all eBooks purchased from the site. Similarly, Amazon's recent release of Kindle software for Microsoft Windows-based PCs and iPhones also includes the ability to download Amazon eBook purchases directly from the bookseller to multiple devices.

  1. Choose an eBook Reader Based that Supports Multiple Mainstream Formats

A burst of different eBook readers have hit the market in recent months, each wooing buyers with different features and price points. In addition to obvious features, such as screen legibility and ergonomics (device controls and balance points will feel different for right and left-handed users, for example), buyers should also check the eBook formats that a device can process. Some eBook readers can display eBooks in many different formats; others are more limited. In general, the more formats, the better. Though the epub format currently appears to be growing in popularity as a universal eBook format, it's not certain that all major publishers and device manufacturers will agree to standardize their offerings to epub. In particular, the development of affordable color eBook displays may give rise to yet another format.

Conclusion

Consumers and publishers alike are starting to believe that eBooks are the wave of the future. Students see a time when they will carry a single eBook reader instead of backpacks full of heavy textbooks. Travelers greatly appreciate the weight and space savings that an eBook reader has over printed books—along with the emerging ability to easily purchase additional books when stranded at the airport. These are more than conveniences; they are fundamental changes to the way that readers interact with books.

For all these benefits, however, consumers should keep in mind that continued technology developments have the potential to make some or all of their eBook collections inaccessible to future devices. Until all eBook readers standardize to a common, interchangeable format and do not limit a consumer's ability to migrate eBooks from one device to another, eBooks may best be viewed more as potentially ephemeral visitors rather than permanent residents of a digital library.