Thursday, April 8, 2010

DRM and the iBookstore

The Jaded Consumer has opined that the demand for electronic books over traditional paper would depend in academic environments largely on the ability of users to access text for citation purposes in preparing papers. This is particularly acute given the iPad's screen size and its current policy of permitting one application to run in the foreground at a time: the fact you can listen to music while reading the news on the Web doesn't mean you can read the name of the drummer off the album notes while you are typing it into a web form. So the conclusion should follow that whether replacing textbooks and assigned reading material with iPad content could drive students to buy iPads by the million will turn in part on whether the DRM in the iBookstore kills the content's use for common student purposes. The Jaded Consumer received the following report:
On a public domain book, selecting text shows a nice "copy" option, but on the still in copyright copy of Winnie the Pooh that comes with the iPad, no such copy option shows up. It looks like they are blocking copying. *sigh*, I doubt it's Apple's fault though. I bet it's the stupid publishers that are insisting on this. I think there will inevitably be backlash over overly restrictive digital rights management like this, however the entrenched corporations will fight it tooth and nail.

Just because DRM can suck doesn't mean Apple shouldn't try to do better. Of course, Apple is trying to build an inventory and it needs the cooperation of suppliers to do it; Apple hasn't got the power to force anyone to accept any particular condition of listing a book in its store. Apple's failure to improve access to books (remember how Apple's music DRM increased the number of computers and players one could use in comparison to prior DRM?) will leave it looking like it's part of the problem, and Apple will share the black eye if it turns out that books in demand in academics lack academics' expectation of access.

The Jaded Consumer doesn't suggest that publishers allow unencrypted content to lie accessibly on the iPad hard drive where it can be republished at will by any unscrupulous competitor where authorities won't care about their intellectual property injuries; this would be unrealistic. The fact that there are places in the world in which books are printed for sale without paying authors or their publishers makes it essential that publishers not make the task easier by providing unlimited access to the full text of the works. So, lock the files on the hard drive if you like -- just like music DRM before it died. Just make sure the player allows reasonable use. Selecting text that is visible on the page being shown to the viewer is, for example, not going to make it easy to republish the collected works of J.K. Rowlings; it's cheaper to buy a scanner with a page feeder than it would be to treat the repetitive motion injuries associated with copying each page and pasting it into a Pages document. An added bonus that Apple could add is a "citation" feature that not only copies the text, but pastes it with a properly-formatted citation. One could use a global preferences feature to identify whether one prefers APA format, Bluebook, or some other common standard. Each publisher could supply the proper style for the format in metadata so that nobody gets it wrong (title, volume, publisher info, etc.; by using rank-order preferences for citation format as MacOS does with language preferences, publishers that don't provide the specialized format the user wants can still make sure they get the available format that provides the closest match, from which the user can construct the right cite by hand), and the iBookReader can easily supply the page number from which the selection was cited.

This kind of value-added effect allows publishers to add value even as they try to protect their property. By adding citation as a copy/paste option – or by requiring it in some works, so any paste from the source will contain citation information – publishers can make sure their work is credited properly. Academic publishing houses can advertise high-quality citation service and the broadest array of citation formats in as many languages as might be imagined as a reason authors should select a particular publisher as a first-tier, go-to place to offer serious academic work.

So far, Apple hasn't leveraged any of this potential: students with iBookstore products won't be able to cite to their contents because (a) they can't copy/paste, and (b) they can't see the book when their word processor is open.

Whoever is responsible gets an F.

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