Crippled e-books are worthless

My university issued this notice during exam time – A time when students are most in need of revision material:

A number of eBooks are in high demand at the moment due to exams.

Please check Discovery and use copies on both platforms if available – VLeBooks and Ebook Central.

We may have two sets of Ebook Central copies due to a recent change to the permissions made by the publisher Pearson. Use both sets as they are not the same copies.

eBooks can only be read online and a copy will become free as soon as someone stops using it.

If they are currently all in use, please try again later.

Heriot-Watt University Information Services, 2020

This really annoys me.


E-books are digital. And like all digital content, it can be freely copied as long as you have storage space and the time to do so. And yet despite this, because of some outdated notion of scarcity value and copyright, publishers insist on hobbling and crippling these new technologies. And we just go along with it.

E-books could be a bounty of information. Like access to the internet, access to e-books would allow unprecedented ease of access to information. If the world allowed e-books to thrive like any of digital file, we could enter a new age of information sharing and knowledge, which is of particular importance in educational institutes.

Imagine if whenever we wanted to visit a website, we were restricted so that only one viewer saw any given page at a time. That’s the kind of ridiculous scenario that libraries distributing e-books find themselves in. It takes more effort to block access to these books than otherwise, but it makes the publishers money, so that’s what happens.

Students, most of whom are already strapped for cash, should not be expected to go out and spend hundreds of pounds buying textbooks they will use for one semester and then never need again. But when the library isn’t able to handle “demand” for what is technically an unlimited resource, that’s the reality they face. That, or don’t revise ahead of exams. (There is of course the 3rd way, but let that go unmentioned. 🏴‍☠️)

If we take it as given that publishers have to make all the money in the world, we should not be forcing libraries to buy copies in the old way. The old way assumes a model of scarcity that does not make sense for e-books. Instead, libraries should be free to just distribute the copies to students, and pay a miniscule fee for each book borrowed. Then libraries could send their payment to the publisher at the end of the month.

I know that publishers have to make money, but it is really disheartening to see libraries, the institutes that are supposed to be educating the future, unable to do their job properly because publishers cripple what should be easy access to information, all while they cling on to an outdated system and refuse to modernise.


Oh, and don’t get me started on the pain that the phrase “platforms” means – no doubt this is some horrid software that makes it so difficult to actually read the borrowed book you might as well spend the half hour bus journey going in to get the physical copy.

Header by Jonny Caspari on unsplash

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  1. Great posting – thanks from an old Scot exiled in Yorkshire – ebook copyright restrictions DRM etc really annoy me too!
    I am sure you are familiar with Cory Doctorow’s work and website – https://craphound.com

    Have a good Christmas – and a successful and happy 2021 – and thanks again for your solution to my ‘Google Login problem’

    1. I’m very familiar with Cory’s work. It’s great to see an author embracing DRM-free distribution models. Have a good Christmas and new year too!

  2. I’m so sorry – it was @Gwen-Dragon who kindly posted a solution – apologies!

  3. Piracy arguments are always the same. If you want to steal the ebook just steal it, don’t whinge about how you are inconvenienced by intellectual property laws and think they should all be repealed to make yourself feel better about stealing. It’s nearly 2021, don’t you think it’s time we stopped using appeal to novelty (fallacy) as an excuse for lacking an actual argument? The reason publishers sell seats on books is the same reason they sell seats on computer software, digital “ownership” is a license for personal use, not a license to steal the work of someone else.

    If you want to complain about how universities get paid to use the latest textbooks even if nothing changes between editions, complain about that. The arguments are far more sound pointing out how the system has been exploited to turn university into a money making business… but arguing that we should just legalize piracy because textbooks cost too much is absurd. Rather, we should be moving to a time where textbooks are no longer required.

    And to note, this is a piracy argument, even if you don’t realize it is. You’re attacking the rights to intellectual property and suggesting we remove them because you would rather pay nothing than something.

    1. At no point do I show support for piracy in this blog post. Artists deserve compensation for their work. Piracy hurts this.

      I think you maybe missed my point. I’m advocating for a change in the model we as a society (for both publishers and customer) use when it comes to book lending.

  4. 1) This is Document Management 101… There should Not Ever Be two different copies of the same item available except to editors.

    2)
    > because of some outdated notion of scarcity value and copyright, publishers insist on hobbling and crippling these new technologies

    There is a fairly easy way for all lending institutions to do this:
    – receive a request for an item
    – verify that persons membership
    – “Push” a copy to the member’s software or app
    – (optional) after a set period, again “Push” a notification email or app notice to see if the member wants to “renew” the item for another period
    – if Yes Then renew for that period
    if No then revoke permissions to view the item or delete from the member’s device
    – all of this would be logged, forwarded to the business department so all parties involved would get their share of moneys

    Any current Library type software/app could be modified to provide the above functionality (my old Public Library used to do this… Send reminders and ask if I wanted to renew the loan, ***but only for physical books/CDs/DVDs,etc***) not for digital material !?!?!
    When I asked about this I was referred to a head librarian and told that this idea was impossible to implement. Writing to the app developers I got the same response.
    Now I call the handicapped bus and go to the Library.
    Well not anymore, we are locked down tighter than a drum.

    1. There are so many different ways to deliver digital files to people, it is a pity to see people sticking to the old ways. Your story of digital content being arbitrarily excluded is a particularly infuriating (yet all too common) example 😀

  5. I was just (fruitlessly) looking for solutions to this godawful ebook restriction nonsense when I stumbled on your post, and – hey, whaddya know? Same university, same service, same pain in the neck.

    There was a time where corporations were too inept to figure out restrictions a child couldn’t Google their way around, and honestly? I miss those times. Dearly.

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