Why cloud-based ebooks bring out the Luddite in me

by Chris Walters

As I wrote previously, my current position on the books-in-the-cloud business model is that it’s deeply anti-consumer, because it takes away all concepts of ownership and passes the control upstream to the retailer and/or publisher. I’ve been surprised (but happy) to see so many others join in the conversation — even Joseph Pearson, the guy who created Monocle and Book.ish, wrote a response.

So all of this discussion has got me thinking more about digital publishing, technology, change, and the hidden benefits of the current DRM model.

First, over at Teleread a commenter teased that those of us complaining about the cloud were, ironically, turning into the anti-progress crowd we usually complain about. I think he’s right. As I wrote in response to Pearson, if (like me) you’re for digital publishing but against the cloud, then it’s essentially as if you’ve stopped wanting progress, because right now is progress enough for the savvy consumer. Why? Because he has the best of both worlds: a global information network to transmit ebooks cheaply, and the ability to crack DRM and go about creating a private digital library just like he would have done with print books a few years ago. Or as I described it to Pearson, “We just want the future, but only up to a point, and then it has to stop being innovated so damned much!”

I am aware of the hypocrisy in this attitude. I’m not sure how to resolve it yet.

Pearson points out that the vendor lock-in created by DRM is incredibly restrictive and unfriendly, whereas a cloud-based solution at least in theory offers more openness. He’s likely right, if you accept that DRM works. But the truth of the matter is that while the official consensus is “DRM enforces restrictions,” in the real world DRM is more of a policy statement than an expression of will. Any customer who puts a slight effort into it can strip DRM in seconds. Kindle, Kobo, B&N, libraries that use ADE–it’s all a show, and it means next to nothing in the real world.

My favorite photo from last week was this illustration of the effectiveness of DRM. (via Béranger)

Because of copyright laws and especially the DMCA in the U.S., the “real” discussion of DRM happens informally and off the record. (Or at least it used to. Some high-profile U.S. blogs started publicly linking to DRM removal tutorials last week, and — so far — there’s been no legal repercussions.) In my experience, the real discussion acknowledges that DRM is all bark and no bite. It’s actually the best kind of weapon for an opponent to wield: one that publicly appears all-powerful (so there’s no need for further R&D), but that in reality is virtually powerless.

In other words, it’s not in the consumer’s best interest to advance the arms race beyond DRM. If publishers truly abandoned DRM and enforced a new concept of licensing, one where the consumer never gets access to a downloadable file, then today’s somewhat abstract concern over ebook ownership becomes quite real. This is probably why I have such a strong reaction against it compared to DRM; I don’t know if it will be as easy to get around cloud-only restrictions.

I tend to feel, and I think this is the conventional wisdom, that digital innovations in publishing usually create new benefits for the consumer. But as this topic illustrates, that’s not necessarily accurate. Those innovations could be used to consolidate all power over the transaction with publishers and retailers. What if the current state–where ebooks are treated as discrete files that can be downloaded, archived, and copied–is only transitional? What if the final future state for ebooks is closer to today’s digital movie rental–all cloud and no ownership–than today’s mp3 files?

If most people read a book once and no more, they may have no problem with “renting” ebooks from the cloud. And if ebooks move to the cloud then it could enable publishers to create a tiered offering: $10 to rent an ebook and $20 or more (probably more) to download a “reusable” DRM-locked backup copy.

That is my fear. But I grew up owning physical books and enjoyed the privilege of being free to do what I wanted with them, so it’s hard for me to abandon that mindset even in 2011. Will people born after 2000 feel the same emotional tug toward ownership? I never thought I’d say this, but I might just be old-fashioned when it comes to ebooks.

(Main photo: davedehetre and Charkrem)

reposted from BookSprung


  1. Nate the great22 January, 2011

    My objection to cloud based ebooks is pretty simple, and it’s not that I’m a luddite. Most of my devices don’t have web access so an ebook that I can’t download is useless to me.

    When it comes to ebooks, cloud based services will never be more than a niche. There will always be cheap devices w\o a net connection.

  2. yuzutea22 January, 2011

    Honestly though, will people really pay $10 to rent a book? They wouldn’t pay $10 to rent a movie.

    Personally, I am actually ok with book rental, as long as the option of book ownership also exists. I would pay money to rent books, but they need to be reasonably priced. Something like Netflix’s pricing is reasonable, but considering the lower costs involved in sending ebooks, it would probably be much more sensible to lower the cost.

    To be honest, I think book rental is probably the best hope the industry has of combating piracy.

  3. Moriah Jovan22 January, 2011


    That’s like paying a library full hardback price for a book you have to take back in 2 weeks.

    There is nothing Luddite about wanting to have full control over something you paid for.

    1. yuzutea22 January, 2011

      Totally agreed. I might be willing to pay for rentals, but it needs to be cheap.

      Also, cloud services have another problem: most businesses fail. We know this. We’ve seen many internet businesses go down the tubes. And if the users couldn’t export their data, they were screwed over. No business can reasonably guarantee their permanence, so they’re asking any customer who buys a book (as opposed to renting it) to gamble on their existing in perpetuity. This problem exists to a certain extent with DRM’d books, but in a less severe way.

  4. Mike Cane22 January, 2011

    Cloud-based eBook are inevitable, period, for metacontent and other linking. But that’s the *backend* of a book you should also be able to download and simply read, link-free.

    1. Moriah Jovan22 January, 2011

      Right now I’m completely peeved because I can’t read the Kobo books I bought (on my BlackBerry with the Kobo app) without being connected.

      Actually, I’m seriously pissed.

      1. Mike Cane23 January, 2011

        That’s an entirely different issue that’s BB-related. AFAIK, Kobo will cache the eBook under iOS and Android. So will Google eBooks.

  5. M. Klaar22 January, 2011

    The Love of money still is the root of all evils. when we exalt profit making above all else then starts the descent into dark and …

  6. Phildo23 January, 2011

    Paying without guaranteed ownership. That’s a new concept.
    Where will the companies be in 50 years? 10? 5? Will I still have access to my books on the cloud?
    WHO thinks format won’t change? Actors won’t disappear? Technology not evolve?
    This is all outrageous. With all that, the book industry will evolve to an IT industry: if you want to still access “your” stuff, you’ll have to… upgrade. So, there will be no such thing as really owning something you bought. You’ll have to pay over and over to keep your library accessible. Publishers will disappear, companies who will take over them will buy “your” books and tell you that you’ll need to pay an extra fee to access to it (with lots of marketing alibis).
    Technology will evolve, so they will tell you that “the epub format is no longer supported, you have to buy the new version for xxx $ or €. Yes, you have to pay because [marketing alibi]”. It’s a way to transit from a one shot business to a business with no name at all, it’s not even renting, it’s “unguaranteed potential ownership” as if someone had the key of your own bookshelf and you had to pay them to access your books… without being sure they will remain your books and that you will not have to pay again and again.
    I have books which are more than 100 years old. I’m although keen on technology, this is my job.
    Who believes in 100 years ebooks will still be in ePub format and readable on these low perf tablet that we have?
    Last but not least: the Cloud WILL NOT prevent piracy, it will EMPHASIZE it (see all reasons above).
    See the music industry. They have missed the market. Completely. They thought they were invincible. But people wanted music. I remember, back in 1998, guys were spending more than 10 hours to digitize ONE track. Not because they wanted to hack or be pirate, no: because they needed it, they wanted to listen to music on their computer, and there was no legal and easy way to do it!
    Now, the music industry has complained so much and done so much lobbying that they get paid to do nothing.
    That’s true in Europe, and especially in France.
    There are taxes on everything to pay (so they say) musicians: taxes on: new computers, hard drives, memory, usb keys, internet access, dvd-roms, cd-roms, etc. Meaning that, each time you buy one of these devices, money goes directly in the pocket of some “popular” “artist”, whom you probably not listen to (like Michel Sardou or Johnny Halliday). So, in France, we pay “artists” without the right to actually listen to them. That’s a new aristocracy.
    Remember copy protections on cd, a few years ago. You could not listen to your cds on your autoradio! You were punished because you paid for something. Pirated MP3 worked better.
    See also DVD, when I buy one, I really feel insulted: “piracy is crime”, “you are not allowed to lend it, share it (watch it?)”. Imagine if you had a first page in every book telling you “ok, you bought this book, but we think you may be a pirate, and we hate you. Ok, you can read it, because we tolerate that, but don’t let any other people see it or touch it, otherwhise, we will throw you in jail. Even if somebody in public transportation takes a look over your shoulder at your book, we will sue you and you’ll go to jail, you pathetic piece of potential pirat”. Well, I don’t like that. The cloud is sending me just that message.
    One day, I entered an organic shop and the lady asked me: “do you mind to leave your backpack here?”. That means: “I think you might be a thief, I don’t trust you, I don’t want you to snoop around my shop because you might steal me”. So I said: “Yes I do mind” and went out.
    Who is the consumer in this story? What’s all that about?
    That will be the same here. People won’t understand why they are like punished because they have acquired books legally.
    Cloud will emphasize piracy.

  7. Krystian Galaj23 January, 2011

    If the book is cloud-only, only one person is needed to scan it off the screen, and it’s in downloadable form.

  8. pholy23 January, 2011

    To rename the Internet as ‘the cloud’ is as nice a piece of misdirection as I have seen in while. It conjures freedom and limitless, but imposes prices and fences everywhere. If the cloud was indeed the ‘cultural commons’, and we could freely make use of its content as we wish, that would be a great thing. But all we see are commercial organizations which will grant us access only on their terms, which are to their benefit rather than the common good of the public. We must continue to ‘beat the bounds’ and resist the enclosure of our cultural commons.
    Meanwhile, since altruism is unpopular, I’ll simply claim, as Nate does, that my reading devices of choice do not have cloud connectivity, so cloud reading is but a flight of fancy – do you see sheep up there?.

  9. Perry23 January, 2011

    I’m interested in the cloud, but I think it requires me to be online to read my book. That doesn’t work for battery life. Hmm, perhaps the cloud will be able to deal with battery life issues.

  10. Andrew H.23 January, 2011

    You’re not a Luddite yet because cloud-based books aren’t an improvement over what we have now. I can read my Kindle in rural areas without wifi; I wouldn’t be able to do that with a cloud-based system.

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