Adobe-DRMed ePub isn’t ‘open’: Why the New York Times urgently needs to clarify its Sony eBook Store article

image No one loves the idea of the ePub e-book format---especially at the consumer level---more than I do. I applaud Sony’s just-revealed decision to use only ePub in its store by the end of 2009.

I myself helped found the OpenReader Consortium, and its OpenReader format in turn led the Internatonal Digital Publishing Fourm to create ePub so the IDPF wouldn’t be preempted.

But try to puzzle out a New York Times item by Brad Stone. The headline over his piece reads: Sony Plans to Adopt Common Format for E-Books. Alas, however, we’re still talking in effect about an Adobe-DRMed format in the case of most bestsellers.

The New York Times unwittingly plays down the new power that Adobe will enjoy within the e-book industry---for example, very possibly the ability to raise the prices of DRM-related technology or make other unwelcome changes in the future. If nothing else, what about the Amazon-owned Stanza e-reader for the iPhone? Will Adobe forever let Amazon use its proprietary DRM if the latter company is smart enough to want the current  Stanza-Adobe arrangement to continue? (Update, 10 a.m.: Well, assuming the arrangement isn’t already dead.)

Here’s an excerpt from the Stone article:

Sony will also scrap its proprietary anticopying software in favor of technology from the software maker Adobe that restricts how often e-books can be shared or copied.

After the change, books bought from Sony’s online store will be readable not just on its own device but on the growing constellation of other readers that support ePub. Those include the Plastic Logic eReader, a thin device that has been in development for nearly a decade and is expected to go on sale early next year

Really? So Adobe DRM is not proprietary? And yet I don’t see one bleepin’ reminder of that fact in Stone’s article. Nor do I see him emphasizing that proprietary DRM like Adobe’s will turn even an open format like ePub into a proprietary one in effect. Stone doesn’t say outright that Adobe DRM is “open,” but many a reader will conclude that anyway without adequate clarification.

Urgently needed: Clarification by the Times

I challenge the New York Time to run a follow-up distinguishing between “common” and “nonproprietary.” What you really should be saying, guys, is that Adobe may now have a little cash cow from the proprietary DRM tainting bestsellers. And while this DRM is “common” due to widespread adoption, it is still just one more animal in the Adobe zoo.

Granted, the ePub under the DRM wrapper will itself be open, and publishers will have the option of not using “protection.” But most big publishers for now will insist on it for their bestsellers even though DRM is pretty much a laugh in this era of scanners and widely distributed cracking software.

You read that right: An Adobe proprietary format, in effect

The bottom line is that, yes, for all purposes at the consumer level, Adobe-DRMed ePub is a proprietary format. If Adobe wants to raise the price of its DRM or pull other tricks, will anything get in the way? Maybe. But if so, where’s the public assurance that Adobe won’t pull fast ones in the future, especially against Amazon/Stanza? Anything promised legally? Or just informal statements to the press?

“If the business terms and conditions end up being dictated to publishers by one bookseller who has a chokehold over the value chain, publishers are going to have a hard time staying profitable,” the Times quotes  Bill McCoy,  general manager of Adobe’s ePublishing Busness. Exactly. And same concept should apply to DRM providers. How much of a chokehold will Adobe now have over publishing? It charges hundreds of dollars for its desktop publishing software. However estimable Adobe may be as a company, please don’t confuse it with a standards organization.

The only true open format without a potential cash cow created for a DRM vendor, or without the related competitive risks, would be the one without traditional DRM. Instead the publishing industry could either drop DRM, the best route, or use social DRM, a concept that Adobe’s Bill McCoy has laudably pushed in the past. The New York Times as far as I know has not published any mention of social DRM—-one more  piece of evidence that a generally stellar technology section is not covering the e-book industry the way it should be. Why this omission? And will the Times correct it?

Props to Sony and Adobe anyway

Despite my frustrations over the related Times coverage, I’m thrilled that Sony finally followed the advice that TeleRead gave it several years ago and went for a standard core format for its store, even if it isn’t OpenReader. Good on Adobe, too, for promoting the nonproprietary ePub core format. It’s just that Adobe and others need to be more careful to distinguish between the open ePub format per se and Adobe-DRMed ePub for the benefit of less-than-fully-informed writers like Stone who do not understand all the nuances of e-books (not that anyone can—given all the complexities: no omniscience claimed at this end!).

Alas, the New York Times article reminds me of the time years ago when technologists and publishers were talking about a common format without playing up the fact that it at first would be common only at the production level—-that consumers would still have to deal with the Tower of eBabel of converted formats.

Meanwhile, for the sake of the long-term credibility of both the e-book industry and the New Times, let’s hope that the Times indeed follows up the lamentably incomplete Stone article. “Paper books may be low tech, but no one will tell you how and where you can read them,” Stone writes. True. And no one company—Adobe included—should be able to directly or indirectly govern your use of the e-variety of books.

Related: Commentary (made days before the Stony announcement) by Bill McCoy.  Bill’s headline is Seventeen eReaders now compatible with Open eBook Platform. It’s great that Adobe is offering ePub readable software. But once again, let’s remember that Adobe will offer DRM as an option, and most large publishers will use it—-turning “open” into “proprietary.”

Also of interest: Our earlier summary of the New York Times item on Sony, plus  Chris Meadows instant and very-much-on-the-money reaction to the Sony/Adobe news. Yes, Chris, let’s hope that even though Amazon own the Stanza e-reader for the iPhone, Adobe will still make its DRM available for Stanza.

Relevant, too: DRM, Orwellian book zaps and eBabel: Will the press TRULY grasp the importance of e-book ownership?—an earlier post. Excerpt: “A Google search of the New York Times site turns up just eight or so mentions of the words “International Digital Publishing Forum,”  the first in 2006, even though the IDPF is the main trade and standards organization in e-bookdom. The phrase ‘Open eBook Forum,’ earlier name of the IDPF, appears a mere five times. Total count: 13 times, mostly without the e-book standards issue coming up in detail. Under one name or another, OeBF or IDPF, the group has been around formally in incorporated form since January 2000.” Whether it’s the Time so other news organizations, we’re open to alliances and other arrangements to correct such deficiencies as long as we’re still free to call the shots as we see ‘em.

About David Rothman (6820 Articles)
David Rothman is the founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of He is also author of The Solomon Scandals novel and six tech-related books on topics ranging from the Internet to laptops. Passionate on digital divide issues, he is now pushing for the creation of a national digital library endowment.

5 Comments on Adobe-DRMed ePub isn’t ‘open’: Why the New York Times urgently needs to clarify its Sony eBook Store article

  1. “Will Adobe forever let Amazon use its proprietary DRM if the latter company is smart enough to want the current Stanza-Adobe arrangement to continue?”

    Are we sure this arrangment is still in effect, given that six month after the annoucement you still can’t read DRMed ePub on stanza?

  2. Question: is there any open DRM flavor? Could such a thing even be possible?

    I mean an open DRM that major publishers would swallow and feel comfortable with.

    I kind of feel that the only DRM that would be acceptable to readers — one that we would swallow and feel comfortable with — would be one that involved saving keys to some place that is not going away — a global foundation or government for example — along with a registry. When you buy a book, your ID would be added to the registry as an ‘owner’ of the book. (It might also mean that the foundation/government would receive a master-file for each work as well, though I’m not sure about that — I’m no techie.)

    Then if the proprietary DRM-vendor went under, you could simply go to the registry, prove your ID, and receive a key that would unlock or un-DRM the file. You would get it back. Possibly DRM-free, or possibly wrapped in a new flavor of DRM for your new platform/device.

    It’s all ugly when you enter the world of DRM. Kind of like it would have been in 1750 and printers put locks on all the copies of books they sold. ‘Oh, you want to read Paradise Lost? We will send somebody around with the key to unlock it…oh, wait, that publisher went out of business, and all his keys were melted down. Sorry, you can’t read your book any more.’

  3. Foux and Pond:

    F: Agreed. I’ll do a link from the main story to your comment.

    P: You’re absolutely right. “Open DRM” is an oxymoron. That’s why I favor either no DRM or social DRM (merely the embedding of owners’ names, etc., into e-book files).


  4. pond Says:
    Question: is there any open DRM flavor? Could such a thing even be possible?

    Its been tried.

    And the publishers will go for anything that lets them charge more this week. Never mind the long term consequences.

  5. The question is, what role do publishers have in the promotion of DRM? I know that there are authors out there that did not want anything in ebook form, because they couldn’t control distribution/piracy of the(ir) materials.

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