The Limits of an Open Reader Standard

Boxing GlovesThere are two competing factions in the ebook reading industry. No, not authors v. readers or readers v. publishers (that story is for tomorrow šŸ˜‰ ), it’s IDPF v. OpenReader. The idea is to create an ebook standard that would enable customers to buy any book from any online source and view it on any electronic reader. This is something that could really revolutionize ebook reading. One of my biggest disappointments with Sony Reader is the inability to view my existing ebook purchases at all or in the manner formatted by the publisher. The reason I don’t buy PDF books these days is because of my negative experience of losing several hundred dollars worth of books bought in Adobe format but were unreadable after computer upgrades because of DRM issues.

With the “read any title on any device” promise, I could even support some type of DRM because it appears that my books wouldn’t be “lost” because of device going out of business or better technology appearing. My books purchased for the Sony Reader today could be read on a Apple device next year or a Toshiba device the year after that. As OpenReader announces at its home page, you can play a CD in any CD player and a VHS tape in any VCR and, I might add, any mp3 in almost any digital sound device including the IPOD.

At first blush, there appears to be a Beta v. VHS battle going on between the two groups pushing for an ebook standard. IDPF is the heavyweight with members from virtually every major publishing house in the US (noticeably absent were Penguin and St. Martin’s Press). Adobe is the major technological force behind IDPF. This past, summer, IDPF adopted standards for ebooks published. One would think that IDPF’s ability to bring a number of groups together and agree upon a standardized source for ebooks would be great for the reader.

The problem is that all is not as it seems. According to Dave Rothman, a former member of IDPF since 1999 and current member of OpenReader, the standards adopted doesn’t require existing books to be converted or even require the entirety of the book to be in the standardized format. Further, this standard container or standard source for ebooks does not mean that there is standard DRM. This is such an important point and one that Bill McCoy of Adobe, and leading cheerleader for IDPF, never seems to address. Even if the standards are the same (which Dave Rothman maintains is not required by IDPF), if there isn’t consistent DRM, the dream of “any title any device” is still quite elusive.

Currently nearly every major ereading software uses a different DRM scheme. Adobe, Sony, Microsoft, Mobipocket, and eReader all use proprietary formats that are NOT interoperable. Meaning a book bought today for Sony’s device is not readable tomorrow on Microsoft’s device. Given the high price of ebooks, the inability to resell, swap or share, DRM is crippling to a reader.

I am eternally grateful that online publishers such as Samhain, New Concepts Publishing, Ellora’s Cave and the like are not impairing my e library with DRM. I know that a book I purchase from Samhain today is going to be readable on nearly every device out there, regardless of manufacture, same with Ellora’s Cave. They both use different formatting for their books but that doesn’t really affect me in the end because the books bought from these publishers can go with me and be read on ANY device I currently own. That’s how ebooks should be. It’s short sighted to adopt standards that a) aren’t required and b) don’t address the DRM issue. As a reader, I guess I don’t care how many formats there are – we can deal with different formats. It’s the DRM that we need to universalize.

As romance readers, we could have a big voice. Romance is one of the most downloaded genre fiction these days. Nearly a third of the top 50 bestsellers at were romances (many of those being category romances). Nearly every romance published by Harper Collins and Harlequin are put in ebook format these days. I hope that e-aware publishers will recognize the need for a universal DRM, one that truly means “any title any device.” The current push for a standard format is really smoke and mirrors. In the end, I don’t see how it helps the reader.


0 comments on “The Limits of an Open Reader Standard

  1. Ah, the Gozilla-sized monster of DRM appears again. I understand the reason the major publishers want DRM for their ebooks; it’s the same reason that MPAA and RIAA both pushed for a variety of standards for their digital media years ago. It’s called money.

    DRM for ebooks is just the latest battle for copyright enforcement. Just take a look at all the ebook compliations being put together and sold on eBay – illegal copies, I might add – that the publishers (and by extension their authors) are not being paid for. That alone is enough to push for a standard in Rights Management for eBooks. What they want is something like CSS (Content Scrambling System) used on DVDs to keep them from being copied, recopied and resold all over the place. Yeah, you can get software that gets around this – but that takes work and commitment that most so-called petty criminals don’t want to do.

    Just so you know – there is DRM of MP3s. You can not play a content-managed MP3 from Media Player on iTunes, nor can you play an iTunes MP3 on anything other than the computer it was purchsed on (via iTunes) or a linked/synced iPod. Yeah, a hacker found a workaround – but until that’s commonly available, you have to record to CD, then rip again in another software in order to share the file or ‘play anywhere’. This was and is a common complaint among music sharers/lovers regarding the oh-so-popular iTunes.

    Oh, and so you know – the two links to Adobe Blogs you have don’t work – giving 404 errors.


  2. I’m not necessarily advocating a DRM free ebook technology. While that would be great, I am pretty sure that it is impossible. I am advocating for a universal DRM so that the any title any reader is a reality.

    Further, with ITUNES,it is not impermissible to create a CD of your music and then create mp3s of this while it is impermissible to strip an ebook of its DRM to use it on another reader/device.

  3. I totally agree that there needs to be a universal format. I wish people would stop touting the Sony reader– it my be good tech but Sony are making a ‘format grab’ just as Amazon has with mobipocket. They would rather have a few hostage readers than earn their market share in open competition.

  4. Hi, Jane. Your heart is in the right place, and, yes, OpenReader, too, wants a full DRM solution.

    In fact, we fervently do even though this isn’t our favorite technology. The big publishers insist on it, groan. If the publishing biz is to use DRM, however, let’s do it well. Methinks the present DRM is pretty much in waterboarding territory for the typical reader–and e-book sales!

    Jon Noring hopes to be along later today or tomorrow with further info.

    Meanwhile, just so you’ll know, I’ve never been a member of the IDPF. Jon himself, in his ecumenical mode, is still reaching out to the IDPF as an invited expert. But that’s not the same as being a member.

    Meanwhile your readers might want to check out my PW piece for more context.

    I hope you keep focusing on these issues. In my own opinion, of course, a genuine common format will help immensely. I’d love to see both the DRM and core format matters turned over to an OASIS-blessed tech committee with access to a wider range of disinterested experts than the IDPF has.


  5. Hi Jane,

    As one of the co-founders of the OpenReader Consortium, which I agree with you is the “David” in the “David vs. Goliath” sense, I enjoyed your blog.

    As David Rothman noted, he was never an IDPF member or contributor. But I’ve been involved with OeBF/IDPF since 1999 in its standards efforts, working as an invited expert on every version of OEBPS (including the ill-fated OEBPS 2.0 and the newest update now being developed) and even served in leadership roles in the OEBPS Working Group.

    I’m not sure what more I can add to David Rothman’s comment!

    However, let me stress that the OpenReader Consortium is fully committed to a long-term solution to the DRM mess, and in a way which is acceptable to the many content user groups (this includes individual book readers.) We believe that if the user base is accepting of a DRM solution (even though we know they prefer no DRM), it will benefit publishers. If the DRM is made too strict, the user base will rebel with its pocketbook to the detriment of publishers.

    So, one thing we are thinking of is to gather the various user groups together and see if they can agree on a set of principles and associated list of general requirements as to what constitutes “minimally acceptable DRM.” Doing this will give OpenReader a basis by which to evaluate existing DRM solutions so it can “bless” those that meet the requirements (blessing involves use of the OpenReader trademark), and hopefully lead to the development of an industry-wide solution which is user-friendly.

    There’s not much more OpenReader can do here other than simply banning the use of DRM , and that obviously will lead many publishers to shun the standard.

    IDPF, with its OEBPS standard, has an even knottier problem in dealing with DRM in that the membership includes several companies offering proprietary DRM solutions, so expecting IDPF to resolve the DRM thing to everyone’s satisfaction is unlikely any time soon.

    But OpenReader is not so encumbered, so we are free to take a position which we think will benefit both publishers and readers. After all, in OpenReader, the constituencies we represent are authors, publishers, and book readers, not high technology companies.

    Jon Noring

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