The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
Electronic books, usually referred to as ebooks, have mushroomed in popularity in recent years. A recent Pew study (at http://goo.gl/GfrzLL) found that 28 percent of American adults read ebooks, up from 23 percent at the end of 2012. Another Pew study (at http://goo.gl/dMK4W1) found that 46 percent of people now own a tablet or e-reader of some kind. About seven in ten American adults reported that they read a mix of printed books and ebooks. Only 4 percent of people reported to be “ebook only” readers.
Millions of ebooks, including many genealogy books, are available free of charge online. Free ebooks can be downloaded to almost any ereader device from Archive.org, Google Books, and dozens of smaller online libraries. Most of these books are out of copyright. Of course, Amazon and Barnes & Noble will be glad to sell you modern ebooks about almost any topic for prices that are close to those of printed books.
Ebooks are much more convenient than traditional books. Handheld readers are small, and you can store them away easily when you’re traveling or on the go. One ebook can store dozens to perhaps hundreds of books in a small package weighing less than one pound. I keep nearly one hundred ebooks in my favorite ebook reading device. About half of them are genealogy books of one sort or another. I often take my entire library with me on an airplane, a cruise ship, or even on a coffee break at the office. Try taking 100 printed books with you!
The lighting in most ereaders displays pages that are easier to read than those of printed books. If you are unsatisfied with the text size, you can change the size of the font to better suit your eyesight. Large print books have almost disappeared, having been replaced by ebooks that will display text in almost any size the reader wishes. Many seniors with vision problems have switched to ebook readers in order to enjoy reading once again.
Another advantage of ebook readers is that, unlike ordering traditional books online, there will be no shipping costs for ebooks. Whether reading the book online or in a handheld reader, you will receive it almost instantly. Some ebook “readers” also function as handheld, multi-use computers, including Apple’s iPad, various Android tablets, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color.
Today’s ereaders require little to no technical expertise. My three-year-old granddaughter knows how to turn on the iPad, find the picture book she wants to “read,” press her finger on the ebook’s icon, wait for it to open, and then turn the pages, all without adult assistance. Her favorite ebooks usually include audio and sometimes even video. If a three-year-old can find and open ebooks, most adults probably can do the same.
It is no wonder that ebook readers are so popular. However, ebooks and ereaders do have significant drawbacks. One major problem is the file formats used by the different ebook readers. For instance, ebooks created in Amazon’s Kindle format are not compatible with all ebook readers. Anyone who owns a Nook probably cannot read a Kindle ebook. Amazon wants the reader to purchase a Kindle to read those books, although there are other options. The same is true for Barnes & Noble’s ebooks for Nook ereaders: books published in Nook’s proprietary format are not easily read by other ereaders.
I find the proprietary formats to be a major nuisance with ebooks. I don’t believe I should have to purchase three or four different ebook readers in order to read all the books in my e-library. If I purchase a printed book, I am able to take the one copy with me and read it anywhere. If I wish, I can even photocopy a few pages and stuff them into a briefcase to read when traveling. I believe that photocopying pages, even from a printed book that is still under copyright, is legal as long as those pages are for my own use. Of course, I cannot legally give those pages to someone else. In fact, I could even photocopy the entire book for my own use, should I want to do so, however impractical that may be.
In contrast, electronic copying of a few pages from an ebook or even an entire ebook often is more complex. Should I purchase an ebook online and load it into a handheld ebook reader, I may or may not be able to later copy it to my desktop computer where I can enjoy reading the same book on a larger screen.
A related problem is called Digital Rights Management, or DRM. DRM technologies attempt to give control to the seller of digital content or devices, even after the digital content has been sold to a consumer. While details will vary from one ebook publisher to another, most DRM products attempt to prohibit the copying of an ebook from one ereader to another.
Publishers and authors want to use DRM to prevent illegal copying. After all, without DRM, a purchaser might be able to make copies and give them to others or even make free copies available for downloading on the Internet. Publishers and authors often claim that DRM is necessary to control copyright enforcement, certainly a worthwhile goal. However, by focusing on the perceived benefits of DRM, the same publishers and authors ignore the huge drawbacks of today’s available DRM products. A person who legally purchases a DRM-protected ebook may not be able to copy it to another device he or she already owns. I encountered this a couple of years ago when I replaced my original iPad (one of the first iPads ever produced) with a newer, state-of-the-art iPad Mini. I had dozens of ebooks stored on my old iPad that could not be copied to the new device. I had PAID for those books, and I am the legal owner. Yet many of them could not be read on my new device because DRM prevented copying of some ebooks from one device to another.
Another problem with DRM is future obsolescence. If I purchase a printed book, I can place it on a shelf for as long as I wish. Ten or twenty years later, I can retrieve it and read the book at my leisure. (Today’s printed books do not last forever, due to paper and ink or toner that deteriorates over the years.) Today’s DRM software probably will not be useable twenty years from now, leaving today’s DRM-protected ebooks worthless. In contrast, books saved today in any common non-DRM format probably can be converted in the future to whatever formats are common at that time.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) consider the use of DRM systems to be an anti-competitive practice and are seeking legislation to outlaw the use of DRM. You can read more about DRM at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management.
Along with these problems of interoperability comes an issue of pricing. If a book can only be read on an Amazon Kindle, the ebooks will probably only be available from Amazon–and guess who controls those prices. That’s right, Amazon! If an ebook is available for less money on Barnes & Noble but in a format that cannot be read on a Kindle, the reader probably will have to pay the higher price to purchase it on Amazon. Then there is the issue of free books available on Archive.org or Google Books. Can you read them on your ereader? The answer may be “yes” or “no,” depending upon which ereader you use.
What can you do to read all legally-obtained ebooks on your ereader? I will describe three possible solutions.
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