Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stross on ebooks

Disclaimer: Since 2006 I have been employed by Google, which sells ebooks and related technology, and therefore competes with several of the companies involved in the subject matter. My opinions are my own and not those of my employer.

Charlie Stross has a compelling analysis of the book publishers' position, in light of the recently opened Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple for alleged price fixing. (Incidentally Stross's comments are usually decent and he engages with his readers as well, so they're worth a skim.)

Stross's post reminds me a lot of something I wrote about 2 years ago. Rereading that post today, I find that I have very little to add to it.

There is one additional thing from Stross's post, though, that I find particularly galling:

. . . if your boss is a 70 year old billionaire who also owns a movie studio and listens to the MPAA, you don't get a vote. Speaking out against DRM was, as more than one editor told me over the past decade, potentially a career-limiting move.

Publishing companies like to portray themselves as scrappy underdogs locked in heroic battle on the side of knowledge against the forces of ignorance. In fact, they are merely subordinate tentacles of large, stupid media conglomerates; they aid the forces of knowledge when it is convenient for business, and do whatever they can to muzzle open discourse when that is convenient. (Fortunately their power to silence critics is fairly limited in a free society.) Critics have been repeating for years that ebooks should be convenient and DRM-free. Publishers never listened; instead they threatened the careers of people like Stross's editors for even bringing it up.

Anyway, I can't comment on the substance of the DoJ lawsuit (and anyway, I know nothing about the facts of the case, so my comments would be pointless), but I find it hard to muster much sympathy for these people. The solution to their problems has been staring them in the face for as long as ebooks have existed. Unfortunately, I'm somewhat less sanguine than Stross that publishers are going to learn the lesson. They seem pretty impervious to persuasion.

p.s. See also Tim O'Reilly's Plus post.

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