An E-book (Almost) Rant

Long time readers of this blog know that I seldom rant. Venting spleen across the Internet is simply not my style. What follows almost rises to the level of a rant. It is really more of a call of frustration.

This morning I spent some useless time figuring out how to download e-books from our library — with belated success. It all started when I got an email notice that my traditional books would be due in two days. This is a great service. Not only does it alert me in case I have forgotten, but it also allows me to renew by the Internet. So I did the obvious thing and logged on to my account to renew my books.

When I was about to log off, I remembered that at the last PC users club meeting several people had mentioned downloading (“borrowing”) e-books from the library. Several members who are seniors have various devices on which to read e-books, and they use the service, so it must work. The concept seemed strange to me, but maybe there is something to it. After all, while legal free e-book sites like Project Gutenberg have a large selection of wonderful titles, it is limited to mostly older books. Larger selections are readily available from other sites (not mentioned here) without worrying too much about the legality. [I do not frequent the illegal sites for three reasons: (1) I firmly believe that authors should be paid fairly, (2) I do not trust them, and (3) why risk legal hassles? If you ask me what is a fair payment to the author, I will be unable to answer. That is a difficult question.]

Instead of logging off the library site, I decided to explore and see if I could download an e-book. The whole process turns out to be a sad imitation of checking out paper books. You can download a copy, but it erases itself in two weeks — although you might be able to renew it once for another two weeks. If you are not done reading, you must “borrow” it again after it is “returned”. However, it might not be available immediately because someone else has downloaded it — what? The model of this operation is improperly based on the properties of paper books. The library maybe has five paper copies of Harry Potter, and when they are out on loan, you must wait until at least one is returned. You can reserve a copy so that when one comes back, you have priority for it. But downloading a digital version is making a copy! After I download it, the library still has it. However, thanks to the digital management laws, The downloaded format not only self-destructs, but it prevents copying — or at least requires you to be willing to violate the law or hack it to convert the format to something reasonable. (To be fair, you might be allowed to copy it to a portable device.) It seems that publishers charge the library and arrange the software so that only one external copy (legal) can be in circulation at a time. This whole system angers and frustrates me. I applaud the system for trying to put more books into circulation, but disrespect the underlying methodology — without being able to suggest anything smarter. My frustration stems from not liking the system but not knowing anything better.

An E-book (Almost) RantNaturally I had to download some special software before being able to read my e-book, and in the process give Adobe more information about myself than I care to, but we eventually came to a mutual understanding, and on the same computer where I am writing this, I have a “borrowed” e-book due to self-destruct in two weeks. Why should I be required to give a commercial endeavor private information to “borrow” a library book?

On one hand, it is just plain silly trying to emulate an outdated method of distribution, but on the other hand, the author should get a fair compensation for his/her work and allowing unlimited copies denies compensation. Note: I do not see a role for publishers making money from e-books. I suppose they deserve a small percentage for doing some of the grunt work and advertising. But they should not be rewarded on the same grounds as a traditional paper publisher. I have no idea of what a satisfactory method would be, but what we have now is awkward and not likely to last. Copyright works differently when making copies is more expensive than when copying is essentially free. Society has not caught up with the changing technology. The same conundrum obviously exists with music and videos. There has to be a better solution than DRM legislation — are we not more clever than that?

Try to imagine the world in twenty years or so. Start by looking backward twenty years and see how things have changed. Assume the rate of change will continue. Do we have any idea of how books (or the equivalent), music, and videos will be produced, distributed and enjoyed?

Think of struggling movie theaters right now. They are trying all sort of things to stay relevant. They add stadium seating, 3D, luxury venues, smell-o-vision, moving seats, and who knows what kind of specials. The 3D and other advantages can be neutralized by 3D televisions and gimmicks, but some people will always want that special experience of going out to an entertainment event. Similarly, I suspect that twenty years from now newly printed paper books will be readily available. But I doubt that enjoying e-books or the equivalent will be as clumsy as it is now.

Well, that was mild as rants go, but I feel better. Maybe now I will go read my new “borrowed” book — Kindle, anyone?