Monday, January 9, 2012

Ebooks, Lending and Digital Rights Management

The first time I ever heard of an ebook reader was in 1998, the then NuvoMedia Rocket eBook. Not long before that, I had read about MIT Media Lab’s electronic ink technology, which was spun off as the company, E Ink Corporation. I put two-and-two together and immediately sat down and designed an ebook reader based on the E Ink technology. Unfortunately, I was over ten years too early with my idea. It never saw the light of day.
One thought that weighed on me was how could I keep libraries engaged with an ebook reader? Files could easily be downloaded at home via the internet. It made libraries suddenly seem superfluous. That wasn’t quite what I wanted to have happen.

As an author, lending of my books only helps because it promotes my books to those who might not have given a second glance at anything I wrote (or will write). If someone borrows one of my books from a friend or from the library and they enjoy my book, it guarantees that they will look into other things I’ve written.
A loaned book is not a lost sale, it is merely a delayed sale. If readers enjoy my stories, they will eventually buy a copy for themselves.
When one buys a physical book, one can then lend that book to friends. That was how I was introduced to the work of author Neal Stephenson when a friend of mine loaned me his copy of Snow Crash. I got into J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series when my cousin gave me her copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and insisted that I read it. When I was done reading, I returned the books to their owners. I eventually bought copies for myself later on.
When one buys an ebook, lending that book is a lot harder.
Lending an ebook has issues. Barnes & Noble and Amazon both have mechanisms that allow one person to lend a copy they have paid for to a friend, but that lending can only occur if both individuals are customers of the same book seller. B&N or Amazon. There is no way to cross from one platform to another.
In the event the ebook is in the ePub format, one could theoretically pass an ebook from a Nook to an iPad, but Digital Right Management gets in the way of this. If the ePub file has no DRM on it, then Person A could easily loan the file to Person B. The issue is, this means that Person B just got the ebook for free—unless Person B in unscrupulously honest and deletes the file after he is done with it. Worse, if either Person A or Person B lacked scruples, they could turn around and simply sell the file online and pocket all the money. Of course, this is piracy and is exactly what the publishers are screaming about why they want DRM.
Personally, I don’t like DRM. When I buy an ebook (or music), I should be able to play that file whenever and on whatever I want to play that music. Proprietary file formats and DRM are designed to keep that from happening. More, to keep the user stuck in a particular platform. This is what has destroyed the ebook market in the past.
So how can the lending of ebooks be made to work?
Simple! By using DRM!
Yes, you read that right: by using DRM.
Right now, the ebook reader producers control the channels by which one reader can loan a purchased ebook to another. If you have a Nook, you can only loan a book to another Nook owner. Same thing with a Kindle. If your friend owns a different reading device than what you are using, then you won’t be able to lend any of your books to that friend. This isn't so much a convenience for the customers as it is a vehicle to lock in users in a given platform. In the long run, this isn't healthy for the ebook industry.
I suggest that ebook reading devices themselves should have a function that will wrap an ebook file in a time-stamped wrapper so that an individual can then loan that file to a friend. The wrapper would have DRM as part of it, so the friend would have to unlock the file by entering the pass phrase set by the lender. Perhaps the lender’s name. After, say, three weeks, the borrower’s ebook reader would delete the time-stamped file.
This way, anyone with an ebook reader could loan an ebook to a friend, without forcing everyone to have to join a particular proprietary network. All they would have to do would be touch a button to encrypt the file and then transfer or email that file to their friend to load on their own ebook reader.
Optionally, the lender’s ebook reader could make that file unavailable until the lending period expired. Just as one would not have one’s physical book available to read were it loaned out, this would simulate this condition of being unable to read the ebook until the lending period was completed.
This lending capability would only work with a public domain ebook file format that any ebook reader could display. That being the ePub format. Proprietary formats would not work, unless companies that owned the proprietary format were willing to make that format available to the public, so all ebook readers could use it.
The DRM-part of the wrapper on the file would basically restrict the file to being used on the borrower’s device. Or, if the borrower put the file up on a server for all to download, the name of the lender would be needed to unlock the file and the file would become useless after the time-stamp reached its expiration.
This capability would give libraries the ability to loan ebooks easily. A library-patron could walk up to a terminal in the library, call up a list of ebooks available for lending, and then select the ebooks they would like to read. Once selected, the terminal could then set a timestamp and set the DRM to the patron’s library card number. The file could easily be pushed onto the patron’s ebook reader or emailed to the patron.
There would be no need for third-party software or a specialized network on the internet. The ebook readers already have the capability to manage a borrowed book. This can be leveraged to create a broader appeal for reading ebooks by making it simpler for someone to loan a good book to a friend.