Tower of BabelFor an explanation of the new IDPF format for e-books and other digitital documents, you’d do well to check out Executive Director Nick Bogaty’s note to the if:book blog. I’ll reproduce it later in this TeleBlog post since it’s apparently impossible to link directly to individual comments in the if:book blog right now, or at least not Nick’s.

Learn what .epub, OPS and the other basics mean, and how the IDPF format is more than just a vehicle for DRM; this is optional. Standardized e-book formats help everyone, DRMers and DRM-haters alike, by allowing sophisticated typographical niceties and other advantages—especially useful for scientific, technical and mathematical publishing. Should we prefer a Tower of eBabel? Instead, now that IDPF is on the way to dealing with core format issues, we should encourage the group to carry out promises to work toward interoperable DRM if publishers keep insisting on DRM. Of course, I hope they don’t. Consider how EMI’s retreat from DRM has improved music sales. The best DRM is none—or at least nothing more than social DRM, where identifying information would appear in the books you bought. Again, however, don’t confuse DRM with the issue of core-format standards.

What prompted Nick’s note

Nick’s note was prompted, at least indirectly, by the following observation from if:book’s Dan Visel: “One of the major reasons that we haven’t spent much time covering the efforts of the IDPF is that it’s devoted to standards that satisfy producers rather than consumers; many producers are concerned with locking down their products as thoroughly as possible. It may be a reasonable position from their perspective, but it’s resulted in products that aren’t particularly useful to consumers. Digital Editions looks like it might be a big piece in the puzzle for DRM-focused producers. Unfortunately, readers are being neglected.” I agree with Dan on the evils of DRM, as well as all the inconvenience that various flavors of PDF and other proprietary formats have inflicted on those of us who love to read books off a screen. What’s more, just as with OpenReader, I’ve raised questions about the IDPF’s standard-setting process and “purity” questions. Still, I hope Dan will take time to separate the DRM issue from the standards ones and also keep in mind that OpenReader didn’t exactly draw an avalanche of support from potential funders and Open Source programmers. The IDPF standard, moreover, while flawed, is hardly proprietary and has drawn widespread support from publishers. It’s time to get behind the standard and work to improve it.

Anyone can build creation tools for the new IPDF format—which in fact Jon Noring‘s BookX project would do for small publishers interested in the IDPF standard or many others. Open source advocates, especially those with with PHP skills, would do well to check in with Jon rather than just writing off the IPDF’s standards as a nefarious tool for the DRM interests. Or they can start their own projects.

Where I would agree with if:book: The typographical issues that Dan has with Digital Editions. But in fairness to DE, I sense that it’s mainly for recreational reading at the popular level. Mobipocket, my favorite from among the proprietary systems, is hardly a typographical role model either. I’m more interested in the actual words and in convenience and good ergonomics for recreational readers than I am in perfect typography for them. Others are welcome to disagree.


Nick’s note to the if:book blog

After responding to a reference to this post on Peter Brantley’s (Digital Library Federation) email list, he convinced me to repost here.

A brief note prior to addressing this. I am always highly skeptical of general comments and arguments about digital media being “locked down” without specific examples of how or why this is so. In the case of DRM systems this is correct; it’s the purpose of DRM after all. In the case of .epub it is totally incorrect. Here’s why:

1. .epub is the file extension which applies to two standards, OPS and OCF. OPS (Open Publication Structure) is the markup (either XHTML or DTBook) and navigation (like chapters etc.) of a digital book. OCF (Open Container Format) is a zip file which holds the markup of the book, images, style sheets etc. and has directories in it so publishers can send along metadata and other information about their eBook through distribution. It is simply a means of combining all of these various things that comprise an eBook into one file.

While software can certainly wrap .epub in DRM, there is absolutely nothing in the specs which requires or mandates DRM. In fact, you can download sample .epub files at, change the file extension to “.zip”, open the zip file, and have full access to the markup, images etc. of the digital book. We chose ZIP for .epub largely because ZIP applications were so prevalent and…open.

2. Prior to software implementation of .epub, there was no possibility of interoperability between software which had implemented proprietary formats. Now, for example, a consumer can take an unencrypted .epub file and open in it Digital Editions and also open it in eBook Technologies’, Mobipocket’s, Osoft’s etc. software and it should render. This seems like a good thing for consumers.

3. Authoring software is being developed to easily produce .epub files. Adobe InDesign CS3 is an example. The continued creation of authoring tools by conversion houses and other software companies will make it quite a bit easier and cheaper for publishers to produce digital books. This is good for publishers. And, since it will be significantly cheaper to produce digital books, publishers will most likely produce more selection for consumers. This seems good for consumers.

4. From an intellectual property standpoint (which the author doesn’t address), the specs are totally open and free to use. The IDPF does not require you to be a member or pay in any way to use the specs to develop software or produce eBooks. Pretty good for everyone.

There was much compromise in the production of these specifications between publishers, software companies, accessibility advocates etc. and they aren’t perfect. The result for the industry, however, is undoubtedly good. Arguments that they favor producers over customers or are in some way locked down just aren’t correct.


Nick Bogaty
Executive Director
International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)


  1. Adobe Digital Editions lacks documentation.
    What do I mean by that…
    the .epub format does not standardize all the cool features like adding notes, highlighting or pagination.
    It’s good for companies who implement the standard because they can add extra features to their product that sets it apart from competition by adding to it.

    Here is a quote from Bill McCoy’s blog – an answer to my comments:

    Adobe has created an OPS extension based on XSL-FO that delivers this capability. XSL-FO already provides for specifying different master page sequences. Our extension makes the conditions under which they are used a dynamic XPath expression, which enables some very interesting behaviors – switching number of columns based on the display width is just the beginning.

    I suppose this will be built into inDesign… but where is it documented? Can an independent ebook creator use these features? At the moment the answer is No. you have to purchase InDesign.
    This makes sense from Adobe’s standpoint 🙂 – but how about standards?

  2. Thanks, Tamas. I do know that in the case of one feature, reliable interbook linking, IDPF has promised action. If standardization isn’t present now or is problematic in the IDPF specs in regard to note-taking (I know there is no SHARED annotations standard), etc., then let’s get the deficiencies documented in the TeleBlog. Earlier I asked Jon Noring to do an item-by-item laundry list for the purpose of the next revision of the IDPF specs (no info so far from him). I would encourage you to do the same as well. Same for OSoft and other companies involved. Thanks. David

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