In January 2011, California start-up company Kno, Inc. announced upcoming beta testing of single and two-screen e-book readers specifically designed for use with electronic textbooks. The devices, consisting of 14-inch screens, replicate the size and appearance of a standard hard-copy textbook and allow users to apply “traditional” study techniques such as highlighting and margin notes. Kno intends to commence selling both products in early 2011.
E-books are not without drawbacks, and their lack of accessibility for the blind has already been the subject of a lawsuit against Arizona State University settled last year. However, the recent proliferation of new general-purpose readers, growing public discontent with the textbook industry, and a California law requiring electronic textbooks in all primary and secondary schools by 2020 indicate that the days of a hard-copy textbook being the primary instruction aid are most likely numbered.
The digitization of any creative work raises issues of copyright protection. Although publishers have taken legal action against companies that facilitated illegal copying and distribution of textbooks without permission, most infringing activity has been the product of labor-intensive preparation such as scanning of hard-copy textbooks. As a result, the amount of infringement has not been high enough to be a significant concern to publishers. The digitization of textbooks, however, will likely revolutionize the delivery of textbooks in the same manner that digital music changed the recording industry. Similar to an .mp3 music file, a digital book never deteriorates and costs almost nothing to reproduce and distribute to other users. Without controls on this distribution process, a primary purpose of copyright protection — providing a financial incentive for authors to create original works — will be easily defeated.
The music industry’s resistance to the introduction of digital music is instructive, though not completely applicable, for publishers contemplating the growing popularity of e-books. Similar to the publishing industry, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was successful in shutting down the most popular peer-to-peer file sharing service provider. However, similar service providers still exist, while others have managed to avoid jurisdiction by locating their domains beyond American jurisdiction. RIAA’s real success in combating copyright infringement came when it started targeting and suing individual consumers, often for astronomical sums of money. The publishing industry, however, is not likely to fare as well in pursuing legal remedies as did the music industry.
Unlike RIAA, however, textbook publishers will not be as likely to slow illegal downloading by taking legal action against individual consumers. RIAA reported in 2004 that the music users it sued had downloaded an average of 800 songs each. A typical student, on the other hand, may use 3-5 textbooks a semester, some of which may not be downloaded. Such low-volume lawsuits would probably not deter other students to a degree that would make the publishers’ considerable investment in legal costs worthwhile.
So how should the textbook industry deal with the advent of digitization? The best answer may be to embrace the technology and develop business models that would ensure continued profitability. The newspaper industry’s slow reaction to the advent of internet-based news services still threatens its existence, but newspapers are starting to take action to remain viable by streamlining operations (most notably, by singling up publications in most metropolitan areas), concentrating on local features and news, and introducing websites featuring advertising space. In similar fashion, publishers should improve their processes in order to successfully implement an e-book operation. For example, electronic publishing should enable publishers to eliminate distribution overhead and some production costs. Authors could collaborate on open source textbook projects in order to reduce costs and improve textbook quality. Advertising could be built into each publication. In addition, technology could be used to make electronic books non-transferable by adding copy protection or charging the user a per-use fee.
In sum, the ability of publishers to embrace digital technology early by implementing effective business models may enable them to profit from the growth of e-books rather than be victimized by it.