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.