New Apple Rules Underscore Problems With Digital Libraries


About a month after I bought my iPad, one thing became clear to me: I’d no longer be buying paper books. Sure enough, almost a year later the only physical books I’ve bought are a textbook or two and a couple of glossy picture books on baseball. But is it wise to go all-in on the future of e-books?

For the most part, the limitations of e-books — primarily the lack of letting someone else read it — haven’t bothered me. I don’t tend to loan my books out often. Platform lock hasn’t been an issue, since the Kindle app is cross-platform. But Apple’s recent statement that they want their cut from third-party purchases reminded me how vulnerable our digital libraries are to the dealings and fortunes of the companies who provide them.

What Happens When Your Retailer Goes Away?

Businesses fail. Can any of us really say for certain that Amazon or Apple are going still be in business 10, 15, or 20 years from now? Or that you’ll always be able to read your e-books on your favorite device? If you’ve been computing for more than 10 years, it’s likely you’ve got a floppy or two in a format unreadable by your current machine. My early fiction writings are likely on an old SCSI hard drive buried in my closet at my parents’ house. If Amazon shuts down the Kindle store, or completely goes out of business, we could be screwed in terms of getting access to our purchases. While I use Amazon as an example, any e-book retailer is vulnerable (and quite possibly e-book authors, too).

DRM Is a Problem, Not a Solution

I’m going to be honest here; in addition to being cross-platform and having a better library than the iBookstore, the other reason I purchase Amazon books is because it’s fairly easy to get around their DRM restrictions. Now, I’m not advocating piracy in any way, but when I break the DRM on my personal purchases I’m ensuring I (just me, not someone else who didn’t pay for the thing in the first place) can read the book on any device. It also helps me back up my e-book library in different locations and formats so I’m confident that if I lose a device or a format stops being supported, I’ll still have access to my library.

While I understand the need for publishers to protect their property, the fact is DRM does more harm to legitimate consumers than it does to would-be pirates. It’s time for the publishers to follow the music industry and sell e-books DRM free. The excellent Take Control e-books use this model, and I’d love to see more publishers follow their lead.

Archiving Your Library Is Key

The biggest thing you can do to protect your library is to archive it. If you buy your books through the iBookstore, your purchases are in the \iTunes Music\Books folder. If you purchase your books through, you can re-download your files from the site. Make copies of these files and keep them stored on separate devices to make sure they’ll always be accessible to you. With Amazon, unless you’ve got a physical Kindle, I don’t believe you can directly download the files.

My Plans Going Forward

Until I see a tangible downside resulting from the new App Store e-book guideline implementations,  I’m not changing my purchasing habits. Amazon will continue to get all my e-book purchases, and Zinio will continue to be my sole source of magazines because both storefronts are platform-agnostic. Unless the new in-app purchases lock the content to my iPad, I don’t expect my purchasing habits to change, but I’ll be even more careful about ensuring that my personal library survives intact, no matter the whims and corporate clashes of the companies that filled them to begin with.

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