Why cloud-based ebooks bring out the Luddite in me

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)

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