As I wrote previously, my current position on the books-in-the-cloud business model is that it’s deeply anti-consumer, because it takes away all concepts of ownership and passes the control upstream to the retailer and/or publisher. I’ve been surprised (but happy) to see so many others join in the conversation — even Joseph Pearson, the guy who created Monocle and Book.ish, wrote a response.

So all of this discussion has got me thinking more about digital publishing, technology, change, and the hidden benefits of the current DRM model.

First, over at Teleread a commenter teased that those of us complaining about the cloud were, ironically, turning into the anti-progress crowd we usually complain about. I think he’s right. As I wrote in response to Pearson, if (like me) you’re for digital publishing but against the cloud, then it’s essentially as if you’ve stopped wanting progress, because right now is progress enough for the savvy consumer. Why? Because he has the best of both worlds: a global information network to transmit ebooks cheaply, and the ability to crack DRM and go about creating a private digital library just like he would have done with print books a few years ago. Or as I described it to Pearson, “We just want the future, but only up to a point, and then it has to stop being innovated so damned much!”

I am aware of the hypocrisy in this attitude. I’m not sure how to resolve it yet.

Pearson points out that the vendor lock-in created by DRM is incredibly restrictive and unfriendly, whereas a cloud-based solution at least in theory offers more openness. He’s likely right, if you accept that DRM works. But the truth of the matter is that while the official consensus is “DRM enforces restrictions,” in the real world DRM is more of a policy statement than an expression of will. Any customer who puts a slight effort into it can strip DRM in seconds. Kindle, Kobo, B&N, libraries that use ADE–it’s all a show, and it means next to nothing in the real world.

My favorite photo from last week was this illustration of the effectiveness of DRM. (via Béranger)

Because of copyright laws and especially the DMCA in the U.S., the “real” discussion of DRM happens informally and off the record. (Or at least it used to. Some high-profile U.S. blogs started publicly linking to DRM removal tutorials last week, and — so far — there’s been no legal repercussions.) In my experience, the real discussion acknowledges that DRM is all bark and no bite. It’s actually the best kind of weapon for an opponent to wield: one that publicly appears all-powerful (so there’s no need for further R&D), but that in reality is virtually powerless.

In other words, it’s not in the consumer’s best interest to advance the arms race beyond DRM. If publishers truly abandoned DRM and enforced a new concept of licensing, one where the consumer never gets access to a downloadable file, then today’s somewhat abstract concern over ebook ownership becomes quite real. This is probably why I have such a strong reaction against it compared to DRM; I don’t know if it will be as easy to get around cloud-only restrictions.

I tend to feel, and I think this is the conventional wisdom, that digital innovations in publishing usually create new benefits for the consumer. But as this topic illustrates, that’s not necessarily accurate. Those innovations could be used to consolidate all power over the transaction with publishers and retailers. What if the current state–where ebooks are treated as discrete files that can be downloaded, archived, and copied–is only transitional? What if the final future state for ebooks is closer to today’s digital movie rental–all cloud and no ownership–than today’s mp3 files?

If most people read a book once and no more, they may have no problem with “renting” ebooks from the cloud. And if ebooks move to the cloud then it could enable publishers to create a tiered offering: $10 to rent an ebook and $20 or more (probably more) to download a “reusable” DRM-locked backup copy.

That is my fear. But I grew up owning physical books and enjoyed the privilege of being free to do what I wanted with them, so it’s hard for me to abandon that mindset even in 2011. Will people born after 2000 feel the same emotional tug toward ownership? I never thought I’d say this, but I might just be old-fashioned when it comes to ebooks.

(Main photo: davedehetre and Charkrem)

Via Chris Walters’ BookSprung blog


  1. Two things. Firstly the ‘Cloud’ is not in any way a technological progress, only a strategy. So opposition is not opposition to progress.
    Secondly DRM is far far more than just a mirage of security. It is sand in the oil of the machine of Publisher – Reader development. It is and will increasingly be a hindrance to those in the industry who want to sell more, while remaining a comfort blanket to those who only want to sell enough.
    Don’t worry about cracking the Cloud, there are many clever determined code breaking geeks working away on it as we speak and it too will have it’s place in the pantheon of once secure – now not even child proof systems.

  2. You write of “getting around cloud-only restrictions,” but I don’t see any reason why (in a perfect implementation) you would even want to. Imagine that you can go to my website, or to my title on Amazon, or to the same title on B&N, and pay once. I get paid, the publisher gets paid, the retailer gets paid, and for the rest of your life, you have access to my book. On your iPad or your zPad or your computer or your friend’s computer or the web-enabled fuel pump where you fill up your car or your toaster or whatever. Why would you want to get around that?

    I think the bigger question is going to be what happens to the concept of “fact”? Easy enough for me to say “I don’t care, I write fiction,” but the fact of the matter is that I do care.

    When Amazon pulled copies of titles off of user’s Kindles, there was a public outcry. Suppose they had done it silently? Suppose word never got out? Even worse, what happens when some evil politician denies having said “All X are Y” in print a dozen years ago? No need to run out and buy up all the copies, because there is only one copy, and when his detractors start yelling about racism, or agism, or whatever ism was displayed, he simply changes history. He edits the file and says “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Look — right here — never said any such thing. It’s all right there in grey and grey!”

  3. I agree that “the Cloud” isn’t a technology progression, it’s a lot of hype right now and most people don’t understand it. For e-books it’s of no value to the consumer. Today I can store 3,000 e-books on a device that costs less the $150. Why do I need the cloud? I’ll still to DRM free e-books ownership and say no thanks.

  4. Consumers–even today–are familiar with a world that let’s them buy media to keep, or rent it temporarily. Removing the buy option will be too unlike any other form of consumer media, and so it isn’t likely to be accepted. And the problem with “the cloud” is that it does not offer 100% coverage, and no amount of bandwidth will ever equal immediate storage access.

    I agree DRM as-is doesn’t work, but there still needs to be some controls over unlicensed copying and distribution of ebooks. Instead of wasting time trying to lock documents into “the cloud,” we should be developing other ways of preventing customers from distributing documents without authorization.

  5. The other point on this sort of thing is that to ‘protect’ their text or whatever, they have to have reading in flash/html5 or something else where the actual reading experience will always be inferior to actual text. Of course they can keep trying to improve it I suppose, and it least if they do, it will make it easier to OCR. 🙂

    Someone’s going to end with a popular one click auto-screen-capture-whole-book program presumably if one of these read online things takes off.

  6. “Imagine that you can go to my website, or to my title on Amazon, or to the same title on B&N, and pay once. I get paid, the publisher gets paid, the retailer gets paid, and for the rest of your life, you have access to my book.”

    As things are today this is naive in so many ways to be amusing; the two main issues that bedevil the above statement – whom do you trust to offer the supposedly “for life access” and how can such an entity (ies) operate freely are insolvable imho.

    On the other hand I am not worried about substance changes since after all, today’s blog controversies – after all what easier but to go alter/delete a blog post – show that timed screenshots which are easy to take and which now everyone that participates in such and has the least amount of prudence does, will expose the liars easily; same argument shows that cloud is no fear since screenshot/ocr is no more difficult than scan/ocr if need be.

    Though I tend to agree though that cloud-ebooks are not going to go anywhere beyond perishable items like manuals and such

  7. My whole problem with ‘access, not ownership’ is the price. I am quite happy to pay $3 to iTunes to rent a movie because they are charging me less than the price I would pay to own it. If they were charging $20 a movie, darn right I would want a file, and I would de-drm it and back it up and own it for keeps.

    When you consider that I recently checked the price on a book I wanted which came out in 1993, and Kobo wanted $17 for it, it hardly seems fair to ask me to give up some of my rights. I will insist on full ownership so long as they persist in charging ownership prices. $3 a book, and it’s a rental? Fine. More expensive than the paperback, and you’re telling me it isn’t even really mine? Noooooo thank you.

  8. “Who’s to say that the cloud is progress?”

    This is a valid point: Sun Microsystems promoted the “cloud” idea since the nineties. The fact that it has not been accepted after numerous promotional periods says a lot about the idea, at the very least, that it’s not ready for prime time (if it will ever be). In fact, it is mainly being promoted now as a security solution, but in fact, it has as many security risks and flaws as it hopes to solve.

    The cloud might work for some content–like free or public domain content, which has no security issues connected to it–or for temporarily-held content like email, which has a limited shelf-life. But it won’t be an effective way to keep media content secure.

  9. “on Amazon, or to the same title on B&N, and pay once. I get paid, the publisher gets paid, the retailer gets paid, and for the rest of your life, you have access to my book. ”

    Or until you go out of business, or are bought by a multi-national corporation which arbitrarily changes the rules of access.

  10. Levi:
    ” Imagine that you can go to my website, or to my title on Amazon, or to the same title on B&N, and pay once. I get paid, the publisher gets paid, the retailer gets paid, and for the rest of your life, you have access to my book. … Why would you want to get around that?”

    And what happens to your collection of 120 eBooks when the company you bought them all from, but they agreed to keep them ‘in the cloud’, goes bust after 18 months ?
    What happens if this same company is so successful they decide that in future they won’t support your favourite eReader and you have to upgrade to the newest model which you don’t like ? every 18 months ?

  11. Joanna – I think you make a very good point. I also would have no problem being loaned an eBook for a dollar for two weeks.
    The problem with the big Publishers right now is they want a leasing license but a purchase price.

  12. Despite being a free lance and an eBook writer, I still say a perfect literary realm harbors paper books, eBooks and audio books, all sitting side by side as consumer choices. There does need to be at least one hard copy of books, and most writers still want to ‘see’ a paper version of their work upon their own shelf.

  13. Most… but not all. I’m also a writer, and I don’t care if none of my books ever see print… because the ebook format is superior, the way of the future, the more economical and ecological choice, and I like it that way. Print books should be as rare as an Aubert 2003 Ritchie Chardonnay: Something purchased, or opened, only on special occasions.

    I do think there’s room for ebook loaning and buying, with a price difference for each. Of course, that won’t really work unless there is true document security.

  14. “the ebook format is superior, the way of the future, the more economical and ecological choice”

    So, in twenty years, I see a mention of some guy named Steven Lyle Jordan and, look, he wrote some books. Let me check those out. Oops, they’re out-of-print and they were only available as ebooks. Too bad.

  15. And there lies the rub. True document security means zero ‘loaning’ ability, but most consumers are aware that you can’t have everything (just ask the Kindle users that wanted color eInk).

    I do agree that paper books will likely become treasured works of art, rather than an abundant commodity, though it does make me sad to think along such lines. The simplicity of reading a paper book I think is the most lamentable aspect, verses the more sensory (touch/smell/sight); electronic books, despite being more ecological in conserving paper, printing costs and delivery petroleum, they still require power, plastic and circuits. Even if you implant them with Iron-Man-like arc reactors (another whole debate) I cannot see that these devices would beat a paper book in the second law of thermodynamics contest.

    The espresso book binding machines may be as close as we can get to having our cake and eating it, too.

  16. Liviu, et al;

    I did say “in a perfect implementation,” and obviously, we never achieve perfection in anything we do. My point was not that cloud-based ebooks are some form of ideal, only that “getting around” the limitations or not was not the what I see as the worst of the problems.

    Imagine that the “perfect implementation” I described did, in fact, exist. Why would anyone want to bypass that? If you could be assured that for the rest of your life, any web-enabled thing you pick up will show you your annotated, bookmarked copy of War and Peace, why would you feel a need to tie it to one particular device by bypassing the limitations, so that you could download it to your [insert device name here]?

    As for the other (and perfectly valid) points you went on to make, I believe the remainder of my comment covered it well.


  17. “So, in twenty years, I see a mention of some guy named Steven Lyle Jordan and, look, he wrote some books. Let me check those out. Oops, they’re out-of-print and they were only available as ebooks. Too bad.”

    I guess you missed the memo about how easy it was to transfer digital files to direct-to-hippocampus wetloads in 2030…

    “I cannot see that these devices would beat a paper book in the second law of thermodynamics contest. ”

    That’s simple: One device equals hundreds to thousands of individual printed books.

    But you did say that was another debate…

  18. The cloud presupposes that you have web access all the time. I have been making several long bus trips the last year where most of the time I was out of reach of any kind of network. How could I have read my ebooks when they would have been in the cloud? And this is not something restricted to the third world. In the USA there are large stretches without any mobile phone access. I have been on a camping site in France where I had to walk to the road to find a place where I could make a mobile phone call.

    And what when your cloud provider decides to terminate your account? Google has done this. Bye, bye, ebooks. I agree with Chris: I want my ebooks on my own device. The DRM I can remove myself.

  19. A print collection of a research library has cloud-like scope and pretty good organization. Compared to current screen collection access print collection access has a strange attribute; it is filled with display devices and these print displays are individually optimized for the given work.

    This precept can be adapted to screen reading but that would require overcoming the current expectation that all works are conveyed to a single device. Needed would be multiple devices for each reader with special display and applications suited to individual genres of interest. A multiple device suite would also adapt to different leasing, borrowing or purchase options.

    There is an extreme implication of this suggestion as well.

  20. Some of the extreme implications of this suggestion include one display device for each work or the alternative of a single display for all works. A single display premise has already dissolved bibliographic entities through the search routines and Google episodic reading habits. Now it is poised to fabricate its own literary genres and its own definition of a book. A good item in today’s NYT (02.13.11) Shorter Books for Smaller Devices.

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