Games book publishers still play

Josh Catone writing for Mashable reports on the not-too-surprising pitfalls of digital textbooks and why they are not ready for prime-time for many students. The primary focus of the article appears to be college students where textbooks are purchased. (If I have any readers still in high school out there, yes, it’s true, senior year of high school is the last time you’ll get to borrow your textbooks for free.)

Indeed, very predictable it is that the third reason (of three) is “questions of ownership.” Cited are DRM (digital restrictions management) limiting time of use to 180 days in one example, after which the books are automatically deleted. The example cited is a biology textbook available via both hard copy and electronic textbook distributor CourseSmart. (The article refers to CourseSmart as a publisher, but it appears this is technically incorrect.) The hard copy version is available for US$50 used, US$80 new; CourseSmart charges US$70 for what is in effect a 180 day rental. Given the cost, and that this is never a concern with printed textbooks, this is simply unacceptable. US$70 for a non-DRM copy is more in line with what I’d consider fair. If Pearson (the publishing) company insisted upon a silly, odious, and obnoxious 180-day time limit, I honestly think US$20 is more realistic. Yes, one-fourth the cost of the print version.

The lack of standardization doesn’t help either, which in turn highlights just how bad of an idea DRM really is, as that is a large part of the reason for lack of standardization. It’s similar to the reason Microsoft’s “PlaysForSure” campaign looked pretty dumb when Microsoft then came out with the Zune, in essence saying “Thanks, hardware manufacturers, for supporting our patented Windows Media format and making it easy for PCs running Windows to use your players, we like you so much that we’re going to say, here’s our Zune, and here’s our middle finger.”

Most digital audio players prior to Apple’s iPod, Microsoft’s Zune, etc. used a standard, if patent-encumbered, format called MPEG Layer III Audio or MP3. Most understood Windows Media (WMA/WMV) files alongside MP3, but MP3 was still a fairly reliable “lowest common denominator” format.

In the world of digital print publishing, despite the clear winner being Adobe’s PDF format (which is as far as I know not patent encumbered, or the patents thus covering it have been made available under a royalty free license), many e-book readers do not support plain PDF, or do so in a manner that’s obnoxious and clumsy compared to grabbing the DRM-infested version.

It seems like print’s slow transition to digital may be the last frontier for DRM elimination. College textbooks are just the tip of the iceberg, though I think students not being able to sell their books at the end of a semester anymore will be quite annoyed. Or, they may just shell out the money again for what’s in reality an expensive rental. Hopefully, the kids smart enough to get into college will be smart enough to see the shell game being played before them.