News

eBook restrictions vex users

By Meris Stansbury, Associate Editor
May 11th, 2010

Publishers suggest that eBook restrictions are the result of device makers’ policies.

As more and more eReading devices flood the market, users are beginning to feel the restrictions imposed by copyright and digital rights management (DRM)—restrictions that some fear could hold back the use of eBooks in education.

Imagine this: You’re in the market for an eReader device and decide to buy a Kindle. Books for your Kindle must be purchased through Amazon’s eBook store. You can download the books you buy to your computer and/or your Kindle device.

Now, imagine that you’d like a Barnes & Noble Nook instead: Can you upload your Amazon eBooks to your Nook? Can you lend the books you’ve downloaded on your computer to friends? The answer to these questions is no, leading some to question whether purchasing an eBook for an eReader device is really buying the book at all.

“Having books on one eReader and not having access to [them] later [owing] to a want [or] need to switch [devices] can be a problem—one that is a major issue for the market at this time,” said Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division for the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

Researching exactly what you can and can’t do with certain eReader devices can be daunting, but really the rules are simple: If you buy an eReader other than Apple’s iPad, you’re locked in … at least for now.

Kindle users are required to purchase their eBooks through Amazon’s eBook web site. Barnes & Noble Nook users are required to purchase eBooks through Barnes & Noble. Sony Reader users are required to purchase eBooks through the Sony Reader store. In all cases, once you’ve bought an eBook through these sources, you can’t read the text on a competitor’s eReading device.

iPad users, however, can access Kindle books by downloading an application that Amazon developed for reading its texts on iPhones and iPod touches. According to a recent blog post by Paul Hochman, manager of content and social media at Barnes & Noble, the company soon will be adding a Nook eReader app for the iPad as well.

Yet, books purchased through Apple’s iBooks store will not be compatible with the Kindle, Nook, or Sony Reader.

“DRM is a significant issue in the eBook market; there is no way to consider providing this kind of content without grappling with issues of DRM,” said Anne-Marie Deitering, Franklin McEdward Professor for Undergraduate Learning Initiatives at Oregon State University (OSU) and a leader in OSU’s library Kindle pilot.

The pilot project at OSU began last summer, when the university bought six Kindles so students could check them out. Because of the Kindle’s popularity at the time, and students’ desire to “try them out,” OSU decided Kindles were the devices best suited for the pilot, said Deitering.

After purchasing the six Kindles, the library immediately had 60 requests to use them. It now has 12 Kindles for lending out, which contain 121 downloaded eBooks. Both the eBooks and Kindles were purchased using library gift funds.

Titles are bought from Amazon upon the request of patrons, and students also can purchase books with their own Amazon account and read them on the library’s Kindles.

A key challenge to using eReaders in education is that some publishers are hesitant to make their textbooks available on a digital platform because of DRM, Deitering said.

“One reason for the pilot project was to figure out ways to manage this content, given the significant limitations Amazon’s DRM policies pose,” she said, adding that OSU does not plan to adopt only a single eReading device, Kindle or otherwise. Still, to accommodate other eReading devices that students might own, or that it might purchase in the future, the library would have to buy content in multiple electronic formats—which could prove costly.

“As our user community increasingly comes to us with their own devices, we believe that our focus will need to shift to how we can provide the content our users want in the format they want, instead of focusing on the devices,” she said. “Not that the devices are irrelevant—we need to have the devices available for our users to access our content—but we expect that we will be considering this in the context of providing content, not providing devices.”

Pace University was one of a handful of schools that piloted Amazon’s Kindle DX in higher education last fall.

“Student feedback is that the DRM is limiting and is one of the reasons for not purchasing their Kindle [when the pilot project is over],” said James Stenerson, director of Pace’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and a professor of communications. “Not all textbook publishers make their books available across platforms. This is a huge factor when discussing eBooks and needs to be settled.”