DRM and College Textbooks

(I’m crossposting on teleread when topics overlap. Here’s my post on DRM and college textbooks. )

Ed Felton comments about Princeton bookstore’s offering of DRM-protected ebooks:

I dont see a reason to object to the U-Store offering these e-books, as long as students are informed about the DRM limitations and can still get the dead-tree version instead. Its hard to see the value proposition for students in the DRMed version, unless the price is very low. It appears the price will be about two-thirds of the new-book price, which is obviously a bad deal. Our students are smart enough to know which version to buy and the faculty will be happy to advise them if theyre not sure. I dont object to other people wasting their money developing products that consumers wont want. People waste their money on foolish schemes every day. I wish for their sake that they would be smarter. But why should I object to this product or try to stop it? A product this weak will die on its own.

As Felton describes it, the status quo for ebooks offers little significant cost advantage over deadtree versions. So it’s pretty clear that DRM won’t sell well. However, it’s only a matter of time before prices come down and profs start self-publishing their own textbooks (if they are not already doing so). Given the POD possibilities, students will probably always have the option to buy something in POD format.

One key question is: can I read this DRM-protected textbook on my linux laptop? If not, the university is essentially imposing an OS standard on textbooks, and that is potentially harmful. Many universities are fine with that in their need to have uniformity of standards. But individuals should know about the existence of these standards before arriving on campus and not suddenly be surprised in the middle of sophomore year.

Another question becomes: which textbook edition is more up-to-date? In some disciplines, research and technology are changing every month; if a DRM-protected textbook lets you download a version that is a few months old (as opposed to a few years), that could be a good selling point.

One more question is the quality of the multimedia content in the ebook. Do the ebooks include multimedia package with a certain wow-factor? Do they have animation, high quality graphics, audio/tutorials? If DRM makes it easier for content owners to provide copyright-protected multimedia content, perhaps there is some value to that. (In this particular case, we are talking about PDF ebooks with DRM, nothing unusual). The “book concept” typically means retaining usage rights indefinitely, but the same expectation may not hold true for a DVD or a computer simulation. My local library, for instance, lets me check out .wma files of audio books. Because of the Windows Media DRM, the .wma self-destructs after a certain time period. Well, that sounds sucky, right? On the other hand, DRM has made publishing houses comfortable with the notion of distributing audio content. That’s a major win for patrons. Not only can I check out audio books totally online, I no longer have to worry about the hassle of returning checked out items to the library. That’s a big win for everyone.

For DRM to “work,” consumers need to see the advantages of it. Is it cheaper? More up-to-date? More interactive? I am no fan of DRM, but if universities are going to require and even to sell DRM-locked ebooks, they need to insist on minimum guidelines about accessibility and fair use.

Update: A commenter directed me to Richard Stallman’s essay on the right-to-read.