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22 January 2011

It's Nice of You to Say, but We're Probably* Not the Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I’m alternately delighted and bemused to read the widely circulating memo that our big ideas — Monocle and — are the harbingers of doom for book ownership evermore. I’ve worked so hard at the Labs for the last twelve months trying to bring these ideas to fruition that it’s kinda wonderful to see other people acknowledging their importance.

I would, I suppose, have put the emphasis elsewhere.*

But wouldn’t it be wrong if you got to choose the emphasis? It lands where it falls. And although we haven’t actually launched yet (!), the emphasis has fallen on the question of whether you “own” your ebooks. is heralded as instigating a new era of cloud-delivered ebooks, where you access your books through the gateway of the vendor.

I do think we’ve thrown back the curtain on this, because we proudly declare that we stream your ebooks — you don’t have to download them. You can of course download your books for offline access on most devices — you just can’t read them in anything other than

The suggestion that this is the deathknell of ebook ownership really ignores what has been happening to your consumer rights for years. Amazon books can only be read on Kindles or Kindle apps. Apple books can only be read on iBooks on iOS devices. Nook books: only on Nooks. Books with Adobe DRM: only on systems connected to Adobe Content Server software. All these companies have the power to ask you to verify your identity as the purchaser, and to rescind your access to books you’ve purchased at any time. To do so for no reason would likely go against their contract of sale (or licensing, as I imagine they call it). But the power they have is no greater or lesser than’s. Unlike —which has no intention of exercising this power, and tells publishers to “get a court order” if they want to prevent you access to your purchased book — Amazon has already exercised it.

The major difference between and these other vendors is that they insist you download the file.

And this is the point: if you “own” the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that’s actually the most anemic definition of “ownership” I can think of. I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms.

If we ditch that bad idea, new and perhaps better models of ownership can begin to supplant it. If a book is a URL, it is fantastically easy for you to lend a book to a friend: you simply give up access to the URL while they have it. That seems to me like a vital aspect of ownership, and an incredibly problematic aspect with files. More significantly, the right to re-sell your ebook emerges as a possibility — because you can transfer your right of access to another individual. That’s not something lets you do now, but it’s something we encourage you to discuss with the publishers of your favourite books (hint: they’re probably not going to like the idea as much as you do).

Book ownership doesn’t die with the new wave of services adopting the model. It died — in the sense you probably mean it — with DRM ebooks. A bunch of DRM files sitting in a directory on your hard drive might give you the illusion of a neatly arrayed bookshelf, but most people know that it’s no more than an illusion.

DRM-free files are completely different, of course. If you buy a book from a DRM-free publisher on, and you want to download the EPUB, of course you can do that. We ask all of our publishers to at least consider the DRM-free option.

But I think that even in the best case scenario, you’ll be waiting at least a few years for that world.

Meantime, we have a plan to address the problem of vendor lock-in, which we believe is the real issue confronting ebook consumers. I’m going to outline that in another post.

Joseph Pearson

* Like on the fact that anyone — who has or has never seen an ebook before — can start reading a book in a single click. By clicking this link, for instance. That seems important to me — I reckon that could get my mother or father reading an ebook. I reckon that could get my colleague reading the same book as me just by shooting them an email.

Or I might have emphasised that for the first time, independent booksellers can sell books that work really well on the Kindle. I come from a country that prizes these indies; we buy something like 20% of our print books through them. But 0% of our ebooks. If can make a difference to that number, I think that's hugely important for people who read books and people who publish books alike.


Andrew Farrell — 22 January at 11:21AM

Thanks for an excellent post, and even more for an excellent and exciting innovation in digital publishing.

Happy to see Chris Walters has posted a further reflection in response to his original piece, it's just unfortunate that this probably won't get as much exposure as the original... ah, the joys of instant reporting in the modern age...

Anyway, best of luck, I look forward to following the progress of this exciting new platform as it evolves.

Mark — 22 January at 11:24AM

You fail to realize that many of us strip the DRM from the books we buy and have no qualms about doing so if we purchased the book legitimately. This way, I actually do "own" the book. Anything less and it I'm only renting it.

Joseph Pearson — 22 January at 11:39AM

Thanks Andrew!

Mark: I'm going to encourage you to read this again: "I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms."

Of course I shouldn't need to point out that hacking DRM shifts you into a rather medium-grey area of the law vis-à-vis possession.

Timothy — 22 January at 02:49PM


Congrats on the private beta. I agreed with you on the false conception of a downloadable-but-DRMed book. eBook ownership makes no sense if it's always retractable.

Yet, we cannot said being able to own a bunch of one and zero does not provide psychological effect to the readers/users. Specifically, the progress bar during the download and installation.

Due to the effect, at, I would suggest make the offline-browsing feature more obvious; a download progress indicator or a 'installed' tick would be sufficient. User would fully aware of that the content of the book is accessible even without Internet connection, and although it will be hard to move the file from one machine to another, her/his browser does hold the content of the book.

I understand for DRM-free file download of the eBooks, cannot do it without publisher's authorization. However there are still ideas we could express to the users - through UI and blog posts like this.

I can be reached via Twitter and e-mail

BTW, thanks for open-sourcing the Monocle code!

Peter — 22 January at 03:08PM

The key difference between a DRMed file and a cloud-stored book is one of persistence: if Amazon (or Adobe) go out of business tomorrow, I still have my books, I can still read them on my current hard/software, and even if I drop my Kindle/Nook/Sony/whatever in the bathtub, buy a new computer, and install an OS that won't run any of the DRM reader software, I can still disinfect my files and convert them to something I can read; when book.ish goes out of business, all I have to show for my money is a bunch of credit card statements, my "purchases" are gone, never to see the light of day again.

Aaron Moodie — 22 January at 03:43PM

Congratulations Joseph, I think Monocle and are a great contribution to digital publishing, and really look forward to seeing what the future holds for and digital publishing in general.

@Peter - I think you may have missed what Joseph said at the start of the article - "You can of course download your books for offline access on most devices"

Timothy — 22 January at 04:07PM

@Peter - No, you cannot 'convert' any DRMed eBooks if Adobe, Apple, or Amazon went out of business. How could you decipher AES-256 without decipher keys from Apple's FairPlay authorization server?

The whole point of DRM is the total control of content from the venders and copyright holders. While and other cloud-based service* poses similar power, Joseph already promised on the blog post that publisher cannot retract the right of ownership without a court order.

* Ownership on a cloud/web-based service is an interesting issue. If you want to be critical about them, UGC websites such as Flickr poses greater danger to the people (they've always claim they own some right when you upload the content)

Joseph Pearson — 22 January at 04:23PM

@Timothy: you're spot on about the psychological importance progress bars. I have plans to move to a manual-by-default download model. (This tweet hints at how.)

As for the permanence of purchases — that's my next post.

Interested to hear what you're doing with Monocle, too.

Blue Tyson — 23 January at 12:17AM

So, you can download all your books - even if you had hundreds - for offline reading?

And does 'most devices' include desktops?

So you can give a URL to someone else to read - does this mean you can't have a book open at home and then say, connect to it at work to read at lunchtime, or on your phone on the bus, as that would be two people - or do you have to be logged in to some account to read it, and if you are can get to it from multiple places?

Peter — 23 January at 07:06AM

@Aaron Moodie - No, I didn't miss it at all. Yes, today I can download it and read it offline; once the company goes out of business, downloading a new copy onto my new device is going to be a rather trickier proposition, don't you think?

@Timothy: "@Peter - No, you cannot 'convert' any DRMed eBooks if Adobe, Apple, or Amazon went out of business."

Of course I can, since everything I need to disinfect Amazon and Adobe DRM is stored locally (for ADE and Kindle for PC; Kindle-device books just need the serial number, which is printed on the back of the unit), no connection to the server needed past setting up the initial account. That's my entire point - once I download the book, it is (at least potentially) mine forever, I don't need to rely on Adobazon's servers staying up.

"The whole point of DRM is the total control of content from the venders and copyright holders."

Agreed. Happily for consumers, in lots of cases it's completely ineffective.

Joseph Pearson — 23 January at 09:22AM

It's notable that all the arguments critical of the model rest on your ability to strip DRM from files. That is to my mind a fine argument, but it's clearly a radical argument. It's an argument a hacker makes; it's not an argument a consumer makes. Obviously that affects how compelling the argument is to non-hackers and to commercial interests.

Many times it's good and important to be on the fringe, but you have to recognize what that does to your leverage.

Michael — 23 January at 03:29PM

@Joseph: "It's an argument a hacker makes; it's not an argument a consumer makes."

Clearly you haven't spoken with many consumers. I suggest you contact Jane @ and ask her how often ordinary readers ask her how to strip DRM from files they believe they've purchased.

I do like that your model will (presumably) make ebooks available on any device, desktop or mobile, with a decent web browser. However, like others have expressed, the idea of losing access to one's purchases should the store go under is a troubling one. Just ask the many purchasers of music and video who have lost access to files they paid for because companies disabled their licensing servers.

Eventually we consumers will understand that we're renting rather than buying content, but if that's how publishers insist on operating, they need to be charging more appropriate rental prices. I hope you'll encourage publishers to price accordingly as part of your work with them.

Joseph Pearson — 23 January at 03:38PM

I'm a great fan of Dear Author. This is my favourite page on the internet. The comments are mind-boggling.

Of course there are some readers who care enough about ereading and are suspicious enough of DRM to learn the principles and practices of stripping it. They are, by their passion, turned into hackers. As a hacker, I think it's completely marvellous.

I wouldn't mistake that extraordinary group for a viable market. Building a business model around their behaviour is silly, and probably insulting.

Michael — 23 January at 04:12PM

Extraordinary? Have you spent any appreciable time checking out any of the many popular watering holes for readers around the net? Have you helped frustrated relatives move ebooks from one ereader to another? If so then you know that there's nothing unusual about the visitors to Dear Reader. If someone is passionate enough to seek out the means to access their own purchases in a way that suits them as a reader, pushing themselves past the limits of their own technical comfort zone, then they aren't hackers -- they're people who have been enormously let down by the publishers and retailers they've purchased from.

The only thing insulting is the way they've been treated.

If you're serious about making your service a wonderful one for consumers, then I ask to do but one thing for us: Do not, anywhere on your site, use the word 'buy' to describe the transaction of acquiring access to an ebook.

Joseph Pearson — 23 January at 04:23PM

We're quite happy to consider that when Amazon, Apple, B&N and Google do the same. I do think we should be held to the same standards as other vendors, and I am extremely suspicious of a definition of property that relies on breaking the contract of sale.

Anyway, let us actually launch, and see if you like the service. It has some awesome features for people who own books free of DRM. Those features cost you nothing. If after trying the service you'd like to shop elsewhere, well, that's a choice we'd never dissuade you from.