ebabel_thumb[1] Shane Richmond, Head of Technology (Editorial) for Telegraph Media Group, has an editorial in the Telegraph about the way that DRM breaks up even the same file format of e-books into a Tower of e-Babel. He tried to open Adobe-DRM EPUB files in iBooks and of course was told that wouldn’t work.

Richmond writes:

Can we pause for a moment to remind ourselves just how absurd this situation is? It’s been a problem for so long that sometimes it’s easy to take it for granted but we are being sold products that work in one set of circumstances but not others. And there’s no good reason for the distinction. It’s not as if this is a piece of software that needs to be re-written for each new platform – it’s just text.

The limitation is artificial and it’s only there to prevent unauthorised copying but it’s a wasted effort because anyone who intends to share these books can remove the DRM in no time. As always with DRM, it’s the law-abiding customer who gets punished.

He goes on to explain how he used txtr to get around the Adobe DRM by uploading the e-books to its servers and then downloading them into the iPad app. He isn’t wholly satisfied with that solution, but supposes that “it’s a choice between that or nothing.” (He apparently didn’t investigate far enough to find one of the cracks that allow Adobe DRM to be removed while keeping the book in EPUB format, which would have allowed loading them directly into iBooks.)

Richmond compares the current situation of having his books spread across multiple e-book apps to “having bookshelves in four different rooms and not being allowed to move books between them”—a situation with which I can sympathize, given that I’m now having to diversify my own e-library since eReader and Fictionwise can no longer carry the titles I want to read.

Ironically, Richmond says, all content industries vow not to repeat the digital mistakes of the music industry—but the music industry has actually been getting its act together, while books, film, and TV continue to make it hard for consumers to enjoy their products.

None of this is exactly new, of course, but it is still nice to see it continues to be said. Maybe if enough people speak up, the content industries will begin to pay attention. It probably won’t happen, but we can dream, can’t we?


  1. The average customer won’t speak up except when something goes wrong. And maybe not even then. They will seek a solution. The shop where they bought the book will not give a solution; they usually point to the ereader supplier or to Adobe. The publisher that caused the problem in the first place, is usually outside the view of the customer because he bought at a web shop, not directly from the publisher. And if they find the publisher, that publisher will also do the blaming game. And the customer ends up frustrated.

    Maybe customers should organize a buyers’ strike, but like in a hunger strike they probably will give up because they just want their favorite books. And too few people are aware of the dangers of DRM. Even if they have no problems now, eventually they will lose the ebooks they have bought when a new, incompatible version of the DRM software will arrive, and their computer breaks down or they need a new ereader. Maybe we should organize a customers protest.

  2. what piet says.

    and: it goes back to what has been said all along about drm, but which i’ve not heard for awhile so it bears repeating. drm is unworkable and shouldn’t even be legal, because it is *terrible* at preventing piracy, and *excellent* at flagging the actual customer (=rightful purchaser) as a thief.

  3. Standards are a wonderful thing but the primary mandate has to be interoperable and open. When successful they are very good for the entire industry.

    It requires strong leadership to play gopher whack when the inevitable heads pop up asking for proprietary extensions and licensing. They need to be reminded of the primary mandate. This is obviously not what happened with ePub. It appears they made the gophers the leaders.

    I’m glad that some media groups are starting to point out this obvious failing, rather then just repeating the propaganda. I’m afraid that ePub is a failed consumer standard.

  4. Sony is selling ebooks to be read on Sony eReaders — that was the deal when the ebooks were purchased at the Sony bookstore. If Sony eReader hasn’t developed an app for the iPad, well, there it is. The customer has nothing to moan about: s/he got exactly what s/he bought.

    And there are solutions without resorting to destroying the file and removing DRM, right? Those unmolested Sony ebook files read just fine on a Kobo and will open on Kobo for iPad, Kobo for iPhone, Kobo for Blackberry, etc. As Piet says, if the vendor doesn’t provide a solution, the customer will find one.

    It’s true, though, that DRM ePub is something of a Tower of eBabel. But there is an end-to-end seamless solution offering non-ereader device agnostic apps and software using a single DRM format, it’s own top of class ereader, a vibrant user community and a growing developer community, tons of content, and no hassles: Kindle.

  5. Sorry, nice marketing spiel, but very wrong. You can’t use Kindle stuff on everything. There are also lots of books they won’t sell to people. So it is neither end to end or seamless. Someone offering that would let you download books WITH A BROWSER, which is something EVERYBODY HAS ALREADY.

    The only actual ‘end to end’ and ‘seamless’ solution is something else. Bittorrent, rapidshare, Usenet, irc, etc. All will definitely work on any system. Anybody can use them, and all the books are available to everyone.

    Note you had to qualify the advertisement there with ‘DRM’ and ‘software’, which automatically makes something not device agnostic, generally speaking.

  6. Really glad that the whole drm thing is starting to get a bit more of an airing in the wider media. After hearing, Wow these ebooks are great! It’s really good to hear them realise that drm is a so restricting and unreasonable. All the issues around drm have been largely ignored by the media until recently. Just wait till they start losing books then you’ll hear them scream.

    Epub had been offered up as the format to end the confusing tangle of formats out there. Then drm had to go a mess it up ….again.

    Access to drm’d books is dependant on these companies existing and adobe (can’t think who else manages the drm) getting paid. Some of these booksellers might be around in 5-10 yrs time but who knows.

    Whether it’s epub, kindle, or sony, drm makes life difficult for honest readers who have to pay for the rubbish that infects their books.

  7. What really gets me are free books that can only be read on a specific platform, like the Kindle or Adobe Digital Editions. If you’re giving it away for free, why secure it artificially? I hate reading books on my latop, so it basically means that if it isn’t for Kindle, I don’t read it.

    I guess I’m hoping that someday there will be a tool that will convert the files without a lot of effort.

    I’d also like to share ebooks with my teens just like I do physical books, but that’s not possible unless they’re on my account. But there are no filters for sharing your Kindle library and some of the books I read are inappropriate for them.

    I had my daughter create a Kindle account for her netbook so that she could download the free books while waiting for Christmas, which is when she’ll get a Kindle.

    It’s all very frustrating.

  8. I started to agree with Alex above when he said it’s not a problem if you buy from Sony or Kobo. But I would completely disagree that Kindle is in any way a solution. Consumers, if they are anything like me, just want 2 things

    1. A decent choice of bookstore for your e-reading device (VERY important- not only allows price comparison, but also ensures continuous availability of titles in spite of publisher disputes, etc.)

    2. A reasonable expectation that your next device will read your existing e-books. (important, but less so)

    Kindle fails miserabley on the first point any way you cut it, and is only ho-hum on the second.

    So to achieve the first goal, just buy any e-reading device other than a Kindle (IPAD, Nook, a Sony reader, a kobo, or any generic epub reader all work fine). And to achieve the second, just don’t buy your e-books from Amazon, Apple, or Barnes and Noble when you have another choice. And between libraries, BAMM, and tons of independent website offering e-books you almost always DO have another choice, usually at a better price than Amazon if it’s a non-agency book. Problem solved.

    Instead of just complaining about, or ignoring the tower of e-babel, why don’t reporters do more to HELP readers navigate it?

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