When Print Dies: The Legacy of E-Books, Libraries, and DRM

Really Old Book

Image licensed under Creative Commons license.

Music and movies have both gone digital. One rarely sees people walking around with CD players anymore, and as streaming services like Netflix begin to take hold, DVDs and Blu-ray Discs seem unlikely to remain popular for long. In the world of the written word, however, books are still abundant. While print media has certainly taken a hit, partially due to the popularity of web content, full-length books still seem to hold a special place in our hearts.

Nevertheless, the world is flirting with e-book readers and other mobile devices (such as smartphones) that are capable of displaying e-books. As the popularity of digital books continues to grow, there are certain questions that authors, publishers, and librarians need to start asking. If and when print does finally die, how will the legacy of this new world be preserved for future generations?

The Current E-Book Model

For most e-books, the current model follows either a standard like epub or a proprietary file format designed by book publishers or e-reader manufacturers. In both cases, publishers often rely on DRM (Digital Rights Management) to restrict certain uses of the e-book files. In other words, the publisher has placed digital restrictions in place that prevent the reader from copying, selling, or (in many cases) even sharing the book with others.

Although many publishers view it as a necessary step to prevent copyright infringement, it should be noted that this model is drastically different from the traditional one. With traditional print, there are virtually no physical restrictions on copying, reselling, or sharing. If Rayanne buys a book at the bookstore today, she can resell it to the half-priced book store two weeks later. She can also share it with five other friends, all of whom read it without paying. Moreover, a library can purchase a copy of the same book and then loan it to thousands of people over the years, without paying additional royalties to the publisher.

For authors, the traditional model seems to have worked pretty well. There is a certain honor system that prevents most people from making photo copies of a book and sharing it with their friends. With the current e-book model, that trust and honor system has been cast aside in favor of mistrust and restrictions. Every reader of every book must purchase a copy, even though manufacturing and distribution costs are lower. It would, therefore, seem as though the current e-book model is designed to maximize profits for the publishers, rather than meet the needs of the reader or ensure adequate royalties for authors.

The Death of Print

When print dies, it is important to understand what will remain. Digital content stored on various forms of electronic media could conceivably have an extremely long shelf life. But that shelf life will be drastically different from that of a print book. When digital content requires decryption software to be read, the assumption is that the software will be readily available in the future. When generations of e-readers become obsolete, however, this may not remain true.

Fast forward 20, 100, or even 1,000 years, and we must face the possibility that it will be difficult or even impossible for people who study the past to read the works left behind by people who lived in this digital age.

Those who value the preservation of history, especially librarians, must begin to consider the future of digital media now. When an e-book file locked in DRM reaches the end of its copyright period, will it automatically unlock, allowing its entry into the Public Domain? Will libraries and museums be able to share these files across vast networks that even extend beyond the borders of countries and civilizations with varying technologies? What will happen with companies that manage the DRM locking these books in place fade away, as most companies eventually do?

There are so many questions about digital books that we have yet to seriously consider. Print is not dead yet, and a quick examination of the current state of digital media leads me to believe we are not ready for print to die. Until we make long-term plans for e-books and their sustainability, print must and will live on in homes, schools, libraries, and history.

Tavis J. Hampton is a fellow for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Indiana Librarians Leading in Diversity program. He currently writes for UK managed server host 34SP.com and is the author of 3 novels.

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  • Brad

    Actually, print is not “dead”.  eBooks represent about 15% of all books sales presently.  When you hear of the reports that ebooks are outselling print, that is based upon web sales only.  Naturally, on-demand digital downloads will be preferable in that arena.  The industry does predict print and ebook sales to be about 50/50 in the next 5 or so years.  Will ALL publishing turn solely to digital one day?  Right now, there is no indication at all of that.  Just as in the music industry, about 50% of all sales are not downloads.  

    What people tend to miss in the discussion I think is ‘why’ is there a need for ebooks?  The print book has a great deal more limitations than most realize.  How many readers are not reading because of sight problems?  A lot!  eBooks and expandable text makes the same selection available to all readers.  Likewise, distribution and accessibility is opened up for readers like never before.  Beyond that, publishing is opened to many that have been closed off from it for years.  Publishing a book in print on one’s own is very expensive and very very few actually ever make that money back in sales.  In terms of publisher backing, ask any author about their beginnings.  Every one of them will tell you about the stacks of rejection letters they have.  Many keep them too interestingly enough.

    The interesting question that comes up (and has been coming up with the expansion of the internet overall) is where do libraries fit in to all of this?  We have seen them becoming a place to borrow a book to read rather than buy it.  They exist for research wherein much of that research done in the actual library is done on the computers they provide for public use.  The main model that exists for libraries lending ebooks is actually similar to the print lending model and the price per license is not all that cheap.  Some libraries are experimenting with loading up ereaders and “lending the library”.  I personally like that one and see huge advantages for schools to do that.

    Then there is DRM.  I can tell you this from personal experience, the real “value” the average person places on a book in any format is next to nothing.  DRM is necessary in the book world even moreso than other media industries.  The publishing industry would not be able to sustain itself without DRM in my opinion.  You would be very surprised the number of people that are astonished that they actually have to pay for ebooks after purchasing an ereader.  Likewise, the number one question in regards to ebooks is about free books.  In terms of “out of copyright” and “unlocking”, not sure but a very interesting question.

    Great article and great topic for discussion.

    • http://www.allblogsconsidered.com Tavis

      The question about libraries is a good one.  They will have to adapt, as they have in the past.  Much of that will depend on people still seeing the value of libraries (particularly the librarian, more than the physical structure of the library itself), since libraries are ultimately by and for the people.

      Regarding DRM, I fail to see why it is so “necessary”.  As I mentioned in the article, I can take a print book, photo copy it, and pass it around to everyone in my neighborhood.  I don’t because I know it’s not a good thing to do.  People still copy and give away ebooks at an alarming rate, with or without DRM.  For proof of that, all you have to do is search a torrent site.  Just like extreme security measures in stores and government buildings, DRM only inconveniences the honest people and does not deter the criminals at all, who always find ways around them.

      • Brad

        Great points in terms of the DRM piece.  The problem I think I is that many are trying to compare the ebook world to the music world.  Photocopying a book would take a great deal more time and energy and is actually the main reason people do not do it.  The question is becomes is the author and publisher entitled to royalties?  I think they are.  Without DRM, how does one protect the work they created?  To give you an example the average book is lent 5 times to friends prior to an owner either shelving it, donating it to the library, selling it to a used shop, or never having it returned from one of those they lent it to.  This is because the experience is different than other media.  We read a book on average once and the experience is over.  Whereas with other media, we typically view it or listen to it over and over again.  Once the initial experience is over in regards to a book, it’s “value” is really gone from the average person.  So, if one was an author knowing this type of mindset; would you want your work to be DRM-free?  If you are a publisher whose existence relies on the sale of originally created works and the jobs and lives of those working for you also relied on that; would you want the product to be DRM-free?  So the question then becomes . . . what’s the answer to protecting the works for authors and publisher?

        • http://www.allblogsconsidered.com Tavis

          It actually is similar to music DRM in the fact that the conclusion they reach is not valid.  They assume that if they allowed people to download their content without restrictions, they would lose money through copyright infringement.  But copyright infringement happens anyway, with or without DRM.  You can get any book for free for you Kindle right now, despite any attempts to thwart it.  People who are going to break the law are going to do it anyway.

          On the other hand, some music distributors have stopped using DRM with their MP3s.  Has copyright infringement increased?  Not at all, but it is more convenient for honest customers when they want to transfer their files from one device to another or play them on devices that cannot read DRM files.

          The DRM model assumes that everyone has this evil inclination to steal and will do it the first chance they get, but their logic is flawed.  The proof is the fact that everyone could get the books for free already, but they don’t.

  • http://catholicservant.com Craig Berry

    What i found the most interesting was in this paragraph…

    “When an e-book file locked in DRM reaches the end of its copyright period, will it automatically unlock, allowing its entry into the Public Domain? Will libraries and museums be able to share these files across vast networks that even extend beyond the borders of countries and civilizations with varying technologies? What will happen with companies that manage the DRM locking these books in place fade away, as most companies eventually do?”

    Sure, it’s a ways off, but eventually these DRM issues need to be addressed.

    • Brad

      I guess what I’m not seeing is how DRM and “out of copyright” have to do with one another?  DRM for ebooks is at a personal service level and locks the file to stop the individual from sharing that and are put in place by the seller or distributor not the publisher.  Copyrights have to do with rights for publishing.  “Public domain” ebooks already exist and are made available by a great deal of sources.  The publisher that holds the rights while in copyright are then obligated to make the work available as a “public domain”.  If one own the print version of a book and it goes out of copyright is that individual going to reproduce the book and distribute it?  No.  So what is the concern within the ebook world?

    • Brad

      I guess what I’m not seeing is how DRM and “out of copyright” have to do with one another?  DRM for ebooks is at a personal service level and locks the file to stop the individual from sharing that and are put in place by the seller or distributor not the publisher.  Copyrights have to do with rights for publishing.  “Public domain” ebooks already exist and are made available by a great deal of sources.  The publisher that holds the rights while in copyright are then obligated to make the work available as a “public domain”.  If one own the print version of a book and it goes out of copyright is that individual going to reproduce the book and distribute it?  No.  So what is the concern within the ebook world?

      • http://www.allblogsconsidered.com Tavis

        The point of this article was to examine the world in a future where print no longer existed.  If the only remaining copies of public domain books are locked by DRM, how do you make copies and redistribute?  Once the seller or distributor is long gone, how do we approach this technology?  It is really an issue of archiving and planning for long-term future access.  You have to think 50, 100, or even 1,000 years down the line about how future generations will access our history, literature, and general knowledge.

        • http://catholicservant.com Craig Berry

          I’ve been burned a few times when a software vendor has gone out of business.

          In one case, we had purchased and installed some software in the IT department. A couple years later, we needed to move it to a new machine, but couldn’t because we lost the license key and the business was OUT of business.

          RE: Public domain…that’s what I’m most interested in. Unless things have changed, copyright owners need to renew every 25 years, up to a maximum – I think it’s around 65-75 years. After that it becomes ‘public domain’. With digital technology having such a long shelf-life, how are these copyrights going to be handled in the future?

        • Brad

          It is very interesting to think about.  I have a photo of a huge library as my wallpaper and you think about how all of those rows and shelves of books came to be there.  It’s mind-boggling.  Besides that, you think in term of how many books were lost of the years as well.  I personally loved Google’s approach to scanning up public domain books throughout libraries throughout the world.  The preservation in that case is amazing.  The problem becoming greed.  All of a sudden people started coming out of the woodwork all over wanting a piece of the pie.  These were books that sat and sat and sat.  No one was ever going to see them.  They were out of copyright and you have things like illustrators saying the book may be out of copyright but their drawing is not.  The company makes a huge effort to be the “Digital Alexandria Library” and they get blasted for it. 

          All in all, the entire world of books and the very concept of books is extremely exciting right now.  For many it’s scary because in many ways we are questioning the very concept of the book itself. 

  • Beth Nicol

    Last year when I left the world of academic libraries, we wouldn’t digitize anything that we were unsure of unless it was pre-1929, I think. The DMC (is that right? Digital Millenium laws) have really turned the original concept of copyright on its ear. but that is a philosophical/theological issue.

    • http://www.allblogsconsidered.com Tavis

      Hi Beth.  It may be a “philosophical/theological”, but the ramifications are very real, and you’re right, copyright was supposed to be a temporary thing to make sure authors got fair royalties for a limited amount of time, but laws like the DMCA have really damaged the original intent.