Why Print Still Rules: The Fading Legacy of E-Books

Woman reading a Kindle

Photo by Joanna Penn (CC BY 2.0)

For the better part of my career, my areas of concentration and expertise have been intellectual freedom, copyright (and copyleft), free and open source software, open access and net neutrality. But because I also have expertise in technology, people often ask me if I think e-books should replace print. They assume I would be a fan of digital books replacing paper and ink.

Personally, I prefer print books, but let us put my personal feelings aside for a moment.

There is a serious problem with the e-book market right now, and it is the same problem we witnessed with digital music and are now seeing with digital video. It is called DRM (digital rights management). The idea is people cannot be trusted with digital content so it needs to be locked behind some type of encryption mechanism that prevents people from sharing it, copying it or even just backing it up for safe keeping.

There is an inherent flawed logic with this thinking. It supposes that people who are able to illegally reproduce and distribute content most certainly will, but history tells us that is actually rarely the case. Since the birth of the copy machine, people have been able to easily copy and redistribute print books, yet that is not the norm. Most people still buy books or borrow them from the library. This honor system is one of the foundational constants of libraries, and to remove that goes against one of our fundamental principles: that all people should have equitable access to the materials libraries provide.

Equitable access becomes a problem when it requires a user to have a certain type of device, a certain type of software and certain “digital rights” in order to access it. Users of Yahoo Music found out the hard way how devastating DRM can be when the service shut down and left users unable to access the music they legally owned. Its demise, coupled with many of the other problems with DRM-laced MP3s, led to calls for DRM-free alternatives. Eventually Apple, Amazon and others capitulated and began releasing their music without digital restrictions. The TV and movie industries have yet to follow suit.

E-books, video games and many other digital content formats still present the same problems that the music industry overcame. As a copyright holder myself, I can understand their fear that people will illegally copy and even sell their content without giving credit or royalties. That fear, however, as valid as it may be, is irrational and unfounded.

The TSA Security Problem

One of the best analogies for DRM is the security apparatus TSA uses in airports. They randomly search people, make them take off their shoes and restrict all kinds of items and liquids from plane travel. The idea, in theory at least, is that they are making a post-9/11 America more secure by prevent terrorists from bringing dangerous items onto planes. The problem is: it does not work. People are not more secure because of TSA restrictions. They are only more inconvenienced. Such is the case with DRM as well.

DRM is designed to prevent people from redistributing and illegally re-selling digital content, but it fails at its main purpose. Digital pirates always find ways around DRM, sometimes within 24 hours of a new release. As such, the only reasonable function DRM serves is to inconvenience paying, law-abiding customers who actually do have a right to the content.

But What about Copyright Holders?

One of the main arguments in favor of DRM is that copyright holders “lose money” when people pirate their copyrighted material. This is yet another fallacy perpetuated by an industry driven by greed. The assumption is that people who download illegal copies of digital content would pay for it if they could not get it for free. This is actually not true, and there are a few pieces of evidence:

  1. One shining example that proves this is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt video game, which publisher CD Projekt released DRM free on its own platform, GOG. Rather than suffering abysmal sales due to pirating, the company sold more than 10 million copies by 2016.
  2. Many of the people who pirate digital content do so because it is not available in their region of the world. A good portion of them would pay if they could afford it and it were available to them.
  3. Many people who pirate content later buy it, thus using piracy as a “try before you buy” method. People who pirate content are also the biggest spenders of legitimate licenses/rights.

Sharing is Caring

Libraries are all about sharing, and that is also one of the pillars of free and open source software (FOSS) that attracted me to it. Information and, by extension, knowledge is something that should be open and shared with everyone. Secret societies and knowledge locked away in vaults (or behind modern-day paywalls) are antithetical to this cornerstone of library philosophy.

Therefore, when someone asks me about e-books, I cannot help but cringe. While print books are easy to share and very library-friendly, e-books have been deliberately restricted to the point where some copyleft activists would prefer to call DRM “Digital Restrictions Management” because the word “rights” has little to do with it.

If you were to go to the store and buy a paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for $9.78 (or used for less than $2) from Amazon, that copy is yours. You can read it, write in it, make it into an art project, dog-ear those poor pages, sell it or give it away. Thanks to DRM, you could buy the same text found in the print version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for $8.99 in digital form, but that copy will never truly be yours. You can certainly read it, but you can never sell it or give it away, and you cannot share it in the traditional sense of the word.

Some e-book sellers have tried to come up with ways to still restrict usage but allow users to share within certain contexts, but none of those are very effective or easy for libraries. For a library to share an e-book, it should be as easy as a person walking in with their device, scanning a barcode and walking out with the book on the device. The library should not have to pay more or face any other restrictions (such as the time limitations some e-books have).  Again, as with other forms of heavy-handed security, the law-abiding citizens are inconvenienced while it does little, if anything, to deter the actual criminals.

The Fading Legacy

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in the big scheme of things, we must consider the legacy that books leave behind in civilization. In library archives, special collections and museums rest ancient manuscripts, scrolls and tablets (the stone kind) that date back hundreds, even thousands of years. We still have access to them, and, for the most part, we are still able to translate them and understand them.

Imagine now someone seeking out the history, literature and cultural legacy of a long-forgotten nation state that converted everything to e-books. Will the hard drives still be around when the cloud has fizzled and trickled away? Moreover, even if those data storage devices still exist, will the technology capable of reading them still exist as well? And if those devices are encrypted with DRM, will future civilizations be able to crack them, or will that heritage and history be lost forever?

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