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eBook restrictions vex users

"DRM will be no more effective at preventing unauthorized copying of books than it was for music..." said the EFF.
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.”

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.”

She said EFF encourages readers to think twice before buying an eBook laden with DRM restrictions. “After all, don’t we want digital books to be as good, or better, than physical books at protecting you and your rights as a reader?” she asked.

Possible solutions

Though eReader devices are multiplying in number, and users must make complicated choices with long-term implications as a result of strict copy-protection measures, new advances in the eBook marketplace could help alleviate the problem.

For example, users of Apple’s iPad not only can read texts bought for some other eReading devices by downloading special applications, but the iPad itself is a web browser—meaning online textbooks and eBooks in an open format can be read on the device as well.

For Seton Hill University, the many functions of the iPad make it an ideal device for schools.

“The iPad is much more than an eReader,” said Kary L. Coleman, director of media relations and communications for Seton Hill. “With the iPad, students can create, produce, and share work instantly with faculty and fellow students. Now, they can use Evernote, a note-taking program that syncs notes, photos, and voice memos automatically with their computers. [We] strategically selected the iPad and do not foresee switching to a different device.”

Barnes & Noble has undertaken a bold initiative in letting Nook users lend books to other users of the device.

While the Nook allows users to lend books through a 14-day lending period, users cannot renew a book after the lending period ends, and publishers have the right to allow or not allow lending. Also, users can lend books to another Nook user one time only—and when a user lends a book, that text is then unavailable for the lender to read.

Still, by at least experimenting with letting users lend eBooks across multiple devices, many think the Nook is heading in the right direction.

“If Barnes & Noble does begin to allow sharing, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gives them a competitive advantage over less-open options,” said Andrew McDiarmid, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

In another encouraging development, Google this summer plans to open an eBook store called Editions, which will begin selling electronic books that users can read on any internet-connected device—meaning they no longer will be restricted to a specific type of eReading platform or device.

Editions, which Google expects to launch by the end of July, will make available in-print works with the permission of publishers who own their copyrights.

“This eBook service will be device agnostic,” Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker told the news service AFP.

Books bought from Google and its partners will be available to any device that has a web browser, Google said. They also will be Kindle-compatible and will support the ePub open standard backed by the International Digital Publishing Forum, which many publishers now use.

eBooks that users buy from Google Editions would exist in a user’s “library,” a cloud-based collection of searchable texts that are hosted by Google, rather than as files downloaded to an eReader device or computer.

“Google’s timing here is impeccable,” said Christopher Dawson, technology director for the Athol-Royalston School District in northern Massachusetts and a blogger for ZDNet, in a recent blog post.

“The emergence of tablet devices and really outstanding smart phones makes cloud-based storage of whatever you might be reading very attractive. A giant selection ranging from the self-published to the mainstream to the esoteric … will make sense for consumers and verticals like education. And publishers, authors, and resellers would be foolish not to jump on the bandwagon, given Google’s generous profit-sharing models.”

For his part, Cushing Academy’s Corbett said he encourages readers to take a look at the business model that the eBook Library Service (EBL) from has come up with.

“This service really takes advantage of all that digital circulation offers to libraries: the option for patron-based acquisitions, just-in-time collection development, paying for actual use rather than pre-purchasing content that may never be used, et cetera,” he said. “That is the model we should be pushing publishers to support. It’s also based on DRM, which we as a profession should support as well. It benefits us if publishers maintain some control over their copyrighted content—especially if they do so in a way that supports libraries.”

The content distribution model used by the EBL allows for libraries to provide purchased content to the user’s device without requiring the library to own the device as well, Corbett said. He added: “It’s an important start to separating the content from the device, which I recognize is not always the intent of the device manufacturers themselves—but it should be the goal of publishers and libraries.


Association of American Publishers

McGraw-Hill Education

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Center for Democracy and Technology

Oregon State University

Pace University

Seton Hill University

Cushing Academy

Christopher Dawson on ZDNet

eBook Library Service

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the 21st Century Libraries resource center. The internet has given students an incredibly vast world of up-to-the-minute resources, including nearly limitless outlets for research and investigation. But many students turn immediately to the untamed internet when faced with a research assignment, often overlooking the value in a virtual library solution.
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