The Limits of an Open Reader Standard
There are two competing factions in the ebook reading industry. No, not authors v. readers or readers v. publishers (that story is for tomorrow ;) ), it’s IDPF v. OpenReader. The idea is to create an ebook standard that would enable customers to buy any book from any online source and view it on any electronic reader. This is something that could really revolutionize ebook reading. One of my biggest disappointments with Sony Reader is the inability to view my existing ebook purchases at all or in the manner formatted by the publisher. The reason I don’t buy PDF books these days is because of my negative experience of losing several hundred dollars worth of books bought in Adobe format but were unreadable after computer upgrades because of DRM issues.
With the “read any title on any device” promise, I could even support some type of DRM because it appears that my books wouldn’t be “lost” because of device going out of business or better technology appearing. My books purchased for the Sony Reader today could be read on a Apple device next year or a Toshiba device the year after that. As OpenReader announces at its home page, you can play a CD in any CD player and a VHS tape in any VCR and, I might add, any mp3 in almost any digital sound device including the IPOD.
At first blush, there appears to be a Beta v. VHS battle going on between the two groups pushing for an ebook standard. IDPF is the heavyweight with members from virtually every major publishing house in the US (noticeably absent were Penguin and St. Martin’s Press). Adobe is the major technological force behind IDPF. This past, summer, IDPF adopted standards for ebooks published. One would think that IDPF’s ability to bring a number of groups together and agree upon a standardized source for ebooks would be great for the reader.
The problem is that all is not as it seems. According to Dave Rothman, a former member of IDPF since 1999 and current member of OpenReader, the standards adopted doesn’t require existing books to be converted or even require the entirety of the book to be in the standardized format. Further, this standard container or standard source for ebooks does not mean that there is standard DRM. This is such an important point and one that Bill McCoy of Adobe, and leading cheerleader for IDPF, never seems to address. Even if the standards are the same (which Dave Rothman maintains is not required by IDPF), if there isn’t consistent DRM, the dream of “any title any device” is still quite elusive.
Currently nearly every major ereading software uses a different DRM scheme. Adobe, Sony, Microsoft, Mobipocket, and eReader all use proprietary formats that are NOT interoperable. Meaning a book bought today for Sony’s device is not readable tomorrow on Microsoft’s device. Given the high price of ebooks, the inability to resell, swap or share, DRM is crippling to a reader.
I am eternally grateful that online publishers such as Samhain, New Concepts Publishing, Ellora’s Cave and the like are not impairing my e library with DRM. I know that a book I purchase from Samhain today is going to be readable on nearly every device out there, regardless of manufacture, same with Ellora’s Cave. They both use different formatting for their books but that doesn’t really affect me in the end because the books bought from these publishers can go with me and be read on ANY device I currently own. That’s how ebooks should be. It’s short sighted to adopt standards that a) aren’t required and b) don’t address the DRM issue. As a reader, I guess I don’t care how many formats there are – we can deal with different formats. It’s the DRM that we need to universalize.
As romance readers, we could have a big voice. Romance is one of the most downloaded genre fiction these days. Nearly a third of the top 50 bestsellers at Ereader.com were romances (many of those being category romances). Nearly every romance published by Harper Collins and Harlequin are put in ebook format these days. I hope that e-aware publishers will recognize the need for a universal DRM, one that truly means “any title any device.” The current push for a standard format is really smoke and mirrors. In the end, I don’t see how it helps the reader.