E-books should have been the future

4 min read

I recently switched from an iPhone to an android. In doing so, I lost access to Apple books, and can no longer read the items in my collection on my new phone. This was a wake-up call for me, I realized just how far I had committed myself to the belief that I would always have an Apple protect, and limited the freedom to switch to something different down the line.

Although this could be seen as a problem with a lot of vendor lock-in mechanics, it seems to be particularly bad when it comes to E-books. E-books are almost always protected by something called DRM, which stands for “Digital Rights Management”. The purpose of this technology is to protect the publishers of books from piracy, by locking in the digital copy of a work to a particular platform that can somehow verify that only a limited number of copies are being used at any one time. Apple does this via the Apple ID, and Kindle also uses an account system.

I get it. If I were a professional authour and my livelihood depended on book sales, I would want to ensure that people were paying for the work that I was producing. On the consumer side, it does suck to buy an E-book, knowing that it is often tied to one particular platform. In 10 years time, I still want to own the books that I bought today, and I would like the freedom to read them on any device that I own. If the server that validates the DRM goes away, then anyone that has purchased the digital work can no longer use the product that they “own”.

What is most frustrating, is that there are other industries that don’t use DRM and are doing just fine. iTunes and Amazon both sell DRM-free music, which allows me to pay for music once and then use those files for as long as I like. Books seem to stand in a category all their own, and as opposed to digital music files, buying the physical copy in order to own it feels environmentally wasteful. In 2024, why are we still forced to use lumber and waste emissions shipping books around, just so that we can obtain the same outcome an E-book could provide? Lugging around 5 books on the bus, or while travelling feels so unnecessary when we can fit a bookshelf in our pocket.

To strike a healthy middle-ground, I have turned to the library, which I consider to be one of the most marvellous public institutions we have. The city of Vancouver has a remarkably efficient library system that allows me to borrow E-books, or physical books if the Ebook version isn’t available. The process is technologically modern, efficient, and the Ebook reader provided by libby is fantastic. However, like trends in private big tech, Overdrive (the company behind libby) controls a massive market-share, and many worry that what is currently a great experience may worsen in the future once all libraries are on board. Currently, 90% of libraries in North America use Overdrive[1]

I have also dabbled in DRM-free publishers, including some E-books from ebooks.com. These seem to be relegated to the realm of technical books (some topics I have picked up include Vim, Git, and Python) but it is really nice to see that option available.

One thing that I am sure of, is that I will not be buying any more E-books on closed platforms, such as Amazon Kindle or Apple books. I know that if I do, either the company will one day make a change that stops them from being available, or I will wish to read the books on a platform that is not compatible. I love supporting the library, and the feeling that comes from re-using books with other members of the public. Sure, some of them may have coffee stains here and there, but that only serves as a reminder that someone else has read the same words that I am reading, also thought about them, and hopefully enjoyed them. Knowledge is for sharing.

  1. https://www.libraryjournal.com/story/could-kkrs-ownership-of-overdrive-raise-questions-about-simon-schuster-purchase ↩︎