I tend to recoil when I see the phrase open letter in a headline – but some so-called open letters contain good content. One such open letter is Ms. Joanna Cabot’s An Open Letter to E-Book Retailers: Let’s have a return to common sense, published on TeleRead on October 26, 2012 (hat tip to Mr. Cory Doctrow’s October 2022 blog post for the referral). Long-time New Leaf Journal readers may know that the subject of DRM and ownership of digital media is an area of interest. See the following list of some of my earlier posts on the matter:

Two of my earlier posts are especially relevant to the subject at hand. Ms. Cabot was concerned with all of the terms and conditions that major e-book retailers such as Amazon and Kobo attach to what are supposedly e-book purchases.

Public Domain Openclipart image modified from Buy Bag.

(Before continuing, note that this article is focusing only on reading DRM-protected ebooks in a manner consistent with their DRM and terms of use. The point of the article is to examine DRM is implemented and whether digital store fronts are being forthright in how they offer e-books for purchase.)

Below, I quote from her posing the question of what it should mean to buy an e-book:

If the button said ‘buy now’ and I clicked on it and I paid anything remotely resembling full retail price, I should own the book.

I highlighted a key point that I did not fully explore in my articles on digital purchases as indefinite rentals and, most on point, the thin line in digital media marketplaces between buying and renting. The distinction between buying and renting DRM-free media is deliberately made nebulous by retailers who ostensibly offer items for purchase, but with severe restrictions on personal use and no guarantee that the purchased items will be accessible, or even available, for an indefinite period. One reason why retailers are incentivized to be vague is because digital media is often offered for sale at something resembling full retail price. Here, the author is specifically concerned with digital books costing the same as physical books despite coming with a whole host of restrictions and caveats specific to the digital variants.

What would it mean, in Ms. Cabot’s view – to own a book? She explained:

I should be free to read [the book] on any device I choose, with no limits–no ‘only five devices,’ or ‘only Amazon devices,’ or any such nonsense.

Device lock-in is common with certain forms of digital media. Amazon, which has a tendency to package its e-books in proprietary formats, is an especially enthusiastic offender. To offer a personal example – my primary e-reader is a PocketBook Color. Because Kobo sells e-books in the epub format, the PocketBook can handle them so long as an Adobe DRM account is enabled. The same cannot be said for books from the Kindle Store, which come in Amazon-specific formats and are protected by Amazon’s DRM. I will note here that I am only discussing e-books as they are actually sold.

I am a big proponent of cross-device compatibility, even if other DRM issues are left unresolved. But let us put that on the shelf for a moment to return to Ms. Cabot’s thoughts. She suggested an alternative to the restrictions often attendant to Amazon and Adobe DRM schemes (note Kobo books use Adobe DRM):

Do away with DRM, or make it a non-interfering social DRM like a watermark or something.

This would certainly be a terrific position for consumers, and it is worth noting for the naysayers that there are many DRM-free e-book sellers, with Smashwords being a particularly notable one in the self-publishing space. But as I always note in my articles on this subject, successful retailers are unlikely to adopt maximally pro-consumer positions just because a small subset of consumers are concerned with such things. Perfect can be the enemy of the good. What of a fair compromise? Ms. Cabot offered one:

If you don’t want me to own [the e-book], then call it a rental instead, charge me a rental-level price, and I will stop complaining about DRM, I promise. My library books expire after a set number of days. DRM enables that. I am perfectly fine with that system. I am not fine with DRM limiting my fair use on books I pay full price for.

This is similar to my conclusion to my article on the thin line between buying and renting. Amazon and Kindle are not suddenly going to promote DRM-free books. However, transparency is welcome. “Buy,” as I explained in that article, has a commonly understood meaning which is not consistent with the terms and conditions of major retailers. In a practical sense, “buy” in the context of major DRM-enabled e-book retailers means something more than renting a library book, but something less than owning one’s purchase. These retailers should be more forthright about what this means – which would entail not misleadingly conveying that the “buy” option for a physical book means the same thing as a “buy” option for the digital version of the book when both options are presented on the same page without distinction.

I also agree with Ms. Cabot that the distinction should be reflected in the price of said “buying” options. In the case of Amazon, I will note that their e-book sales are aggressive, meaning that one can often fill a library (or perhaps over-fill a library) with digital purchases that, while lacking all the hallmarks ordinarily associated with purchases, are cheaper than their physical counterparts. Regarding books less prone to discounts, a proper pricing model would take into account the tenuous nature of one’s assertion of ownership over a DRM-protected digital purchase, the degree and extent of disabilities imposed on the purchaser’s ownership rights which are weighed in the digital dealer’s favor, and the convenience of having access to a book in digital form instead of physical form.

(I recognize in light of the fact that Ms. Cabot’s article was published in 2012 that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited Service is arguably in line with Ms. Cabot’s compromise proposal. Kindle Unlimited is clearly a subscription-based rental service which has, to the best of my recollection (I last used it in 2019), clear rules, terms, and expectations. It would perhaps benefit from having pricing tiers to accommodate more use-cases, but it is a service which offers rentals an an easy-to-understand way.)

Ms. Cabot goes into other issues involving book sharing and registered owners that are interesting and well-worth reading. However, they are beyond the scope of my particular interest in writing this article, so I direct you to her original post to read her compelling arguments on those points.

I have written a bit more about DRM issues in the area of digital games than in the area of e-books. Ms. Cabot’s post provides a good jumping-off point to considering how to improve the experience for readers within the current e-book DRM paradigm. That is, having already explained that (A) Amazon, Kobo, and other retailers of similar scope are unlikely to change their DRM stance; and that (B) they should be more forthright about the terms of purchases and less abusive of the word buy, what can we do to make e-book purchases better while preserving the perceived equities of major retailers and publishers?

Here, I will focus on cross-device e-book compatibility, a point Ms. Cabot correctly and effectively highlighted. This is one area where Kobo is superior to Amazon, not least because it packages e-books in more normal formats. E-book readers, by which I mean readers with e-ink displays, should support both Amazon and Adobe DRM. That I can, if I so desire, purchase a book from the Kobo Store and unlock it with my PocketBook Color’s Adobe DRM app is a good thing – regardless of one’s qualms about Adobe DRM generally. To the best of my knowledge, Amazon e-books demand a Kindle, an Android-based e-ink reader (options in that area are a bit lacking lest one trust certain companies with questionable track records), or the Amazon app on a phone or computer, which is significantly less pleasant than an e-ink reader. (I again reiterate I am only discussing how ordinary people buy and read e-books.) Kindles would do well even if Amazon is more open about allowing people to bring their Amazon accounts and books to other readers.

I will add that there should be genuinely cross-platform desktop and mobile application options, ideally open source, for reading DRM-protected books. For example, Linux, which I run on all of my devices, is not well-served by either Amazon or Adobe. Mobile devices require proprietary apps from application stores as an alternative to using a web browser. (I note again that I am only discussing reading methods that comply with the terms of the relevant DRM schemes in this article.)