Thursday, February 4, 2010

How To Cripple Digital Books With DRM

Late last year, I checked out a book from my local library without leaving home. I got an email that the book I had placed on hold was ready, and I followed the links to check it out. After installing some Adobe software, I was able to download the book and read it on my computer screen.

The prospect of digital access to a whole book was initially very interesting: suppose I lost my place and wanted to find it. Could I search by some quote I remembered? What if I forgot some detail from an earlier chapter – could I search for the appearance of a certain character by name or description? If I wanted to make a block quote for a book review, could I copy and paste without spending time re-typing the text?

Nope. Well, not with Adobe's tool or by respecting Adobe's DRM. Worse, Adobe's DRM doesn't support accessibility tools like screen readers or Braille output any more than it supports the plausible and ordinary uses of academics to copy and quote text under traditional fair use precepts.

Apple is offering not just major publishers' books, but textbooks. Will this do for the iPad what educational offerings on iTunes did for iPhone in education?

As with music, Apple has an opportunity to re-invent digital rights for users. Rather than hard lockdown of content รก la WMA (which is so draconian that instead of getting articles about the limits when you Google for them, you get links about converting files out of WMA or avoiding the format altogether), Apple offered fairly lenient restrictions on music use (all the iPods you cared to sync, and up to five simultaneous computers). Will Apple allow users to search textbooks for the names of theorems, or force you to look in the index then flip – as in a physical book – to the listed page? Some of this is, of course, dependent on what content owners allow Apple to offer ... but Apple has an opportunity to exert leverage. The utility of allowing Spotlight to help you hunt through your library to find all the books that relate to radiography or spectral analysis, or nuclear chemistry, or thorems governing limits would suddenly make all the content one buys more valuable on Apple's store, because it could be accessed faster. Time saved finding quotes in classic works, locating passages from books whose bookmarks were moved by your roommate, and the like is time you can spend polishing your papers into an A. Search, copy, paste, and the like is a huge win for academic users if available.

If not available, it's a crucial loss. The iPad won't run applications side-by-side, so your prospect of reading from one application and typing into another, as with a wide-screened iMac, is nil. Either you can copy and paste, or you can't make verbatim quotes without printing to paper or developing photographic memory. Hey, maybe MacMillan expects you to have two iPads when referring to its texts while writing a paper.

We don't yet know the digital rights limits users will face, but their extent will be a crucial feature that will impact the value of the content sold for Apple's device. Adobe blew it, and won't ever sell me a book (though I might check non-reference "fun" fiction out for free). Here's hoping Apple manages to offer better.

If Apple makes textbooks easier to carry, easier to search, and easier to quote and cite in students' papers, Apple will have a hands-down winner on its hands – a platform to which content producers will fight to offer works because it's so highly in demand by users. Imagine carrying a whole semester's books in the same 1.5lb package you use for email. It could be a winner.

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