This post, by Jani Patokallio,originally appeared on Gyrovague on 4/30/12.
E-books will be obsolete within five years. Crippled by territorial license restrictions, digital rights management, and single-purpose devices and file formats that are simultaneously immature and already obsolescent, they are at a hopeless competitive disadvantage compared to full-fledged websites and even the humble PDF.
Last year, I bought a laptop in Singapore, and brought it with me to Australia. It worked fine for reading the Economist online and what passes for journalism in Singapore, but one day I searched for the Sydney Morning Herald, and there were no hits: it’s as if it didn’t exist. A little poking around revealed that to be able to view Australian sites, I had to register my browser to be in Australia, which also requires a credit card with a billing address there. What’s more, switching countries like this would delete all my bookmarks, terminate my paid subscription to the Economist and stop me from being able to read even single issue of the Singaporean Straits Jacket. And needless to say, the laptop is locked to prevent me from installing another browser that would allow me to get around these limits.
Does this sound ridiculous, a perverse fantasy of some balkanized Web of the dystopian future? Nope: it’s all true, except that my “laptop” is actually an iPad and my “browser” is iTunes/iBooks. Since my iTunes account has a Singaporean billing address, the Kindle application does not show up in my search results. If I switch countries, I will lose access to everything I’ve previously downloaded. And if I do bite the bullet and switch to Australia, a good chunk of apps, music and more on offer will no longer be available on iTunes, iBooks or Amazon, and I’ll pay around 50% extra on what remains. But I chose not to, and thus didn’t buy 3 or 4 books I wanted to, because their publishers would not sell them to me.
Why? Because publishers insist on selling e-books the way they sell printed books, and customers simply don’t figure in the equation.
Now, breathtaking stupidity like this is commonly attributed to digital rights management (DRM), and Lord knows there’s plenty of idiocy involved in there as well. Fortunately, Charlie Stross has already eviscerated that particular sacred cow of the publishing industry (see here and here), so I’ll focus on what’s actually causing my problem: publishing rights.
On the Web, the very idea that the right to read a website would vary from country to country seems patently absurd. Cyberspace is flat, after all, just computers talking to computers. You, the reader, do not need to concern yourself with where these electrons on your screen are coming from, and neither do I, their publisher, need to care where they are going. And when somebody attempts to artificially block those electrons — say, China and its Great Firewall — it’s the kind of the thing that the US Congress and the World Trade Organization get worked up about.