Cushing Academy, a private boarding school in Ashburnham, Mass., made headlines last year when it replaced many of the books in its library with electronic versions. The school bought 68 Kindles, eight Sony Readers, and 101 iRiver Story eReaders for students to use. The latter two devices support the “ePub” open standard for eBooks delivered through Adobe Digital Editions; the Kindle, of course, does not.

The limitations imposed by DRM technology are “an inherent risk with our approach,” acknowledged Thomas Corbett, executive director of Cushing’s Fisher-Watkins Library. “We have had to repurchase some content twice, once to replace the printed book with an eBook version and a second time to allow the book to be used on one of our non-Kindles. However, we’ve tried to minimize that by focusing the role of the Kindle to support pleasure and personal interest reading and using the other devices … to deliver content more closely tied to the curriculum.”

Corbett said the proprietary Kindle DRM has actually “worked very well for us in the short term; however, it may not work as well in the long term.”

He explained: “The Kindle DRM allows all of our 68 devices to be grouped under one account, which isn’t true with the Adobe-based DRM devices. This means we can move content around the Kindles very easily and not worry about which titles are associated with which Kindles. … As long as we don’t have more than six ‘copies’ of a title out at any given time, we are OK. If we have more than six students reading the same title … then we purchase more copies. With the Adobe-based DRM devices, … this process completely falls apart and is quite unmanageable.”

Corbett added: “In the long run, we want to be able to deliver (and pay for) content directly to the user’s device, whether it is their own or borrowed from the library for the full semester—and that requires a DRM model that supports lending through expiration. The Adobe DRM is much better suited for this, [because] it supports expiration already. It would be nice … to be able to support our pleasure and personal interests reading services this way, too, but that will require some changes on Amazon’s part.”

Who’s to blame?

For David Pogue, technology columnist for the New York Times, the DRM issue with eBooks largely mirrors the copy-protection controversy the music industry went through. Until the major recording studios agreed to let consumers download digital music files without DRM technology, users were prohibited from playing songs they’d bought from iTunes on an MP3 player other than Apple’s iPod, for example—and they were limited in terms of how they could use or share these songs.

“The issues involved with copy protection haven’t changed … namely, publishers are terrified of piracy. … As an author myself, I, too, am terrified by the thought of piracy. I can’t stand seeing my books, which are the primary source of my income, posted on all these piracy web sites, available to download free,” said Pogue in a recent post.

But according to the AAP, it’s not the publishers’ fault.

“Publishers are really the middlemen between copyright holders and users,” said Diskey. “For example, say you’re a publisher and have a collection of ninth-grade literature that includes books from hundreds of authors, many with their own copyright ownership and terms. Just because this book goes digital or on an eReader doesn’t mean that copyright holders are going to relinquish these copyrights.”

As publisher McGraw-Hill suggests, the restrictions on sharing, lending, and transferring eBooks to different devices are not a result of publishers’ and authors’ preferences, but rather the device makers’ policies: They have a financial stake in keeping consumers from using rival eReader products.

“We are developing our eBooks to work on a range of devices and platforms. However, [the Kindle, Nook, and iPad], as well as others, have different, proprietary eBook platforms and formats. They are not compatible with each other as of now,” said the company in a statement.

Manufacturers of eReader devices did not responded to requests for comment before press time.

“McGraw-Hill, and other major educational publishers, [are] now beginning to offer one solution for this eBook issue,” said the company. “Through CourseSmart, an online marketplace for eBooks, a student who buys an eBook and downloads it to one brand of computer and switches to another brand can get a replacement copy of their eBook on the new computer at no extra charge.”

Corynne McSherry, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said DRM puts “the power in the hands of the technology companies that control the DRM standards, rather than authors and publishers, by locking customers and businesses into a proprietary platform.”