A subtlety of some formats — EPUB is a good example — is their support for the aforementioned DRM. DRM, or digital rights management, is an electronic lock on someone's digital property that, in theory, prevents theft or duplication. As many online music consumers have found, DRM can be a real pain. I know of no DRM scheme that, once it reaches critical mass in the consumer marketplace, has not been either broken or circumvented within a relatively short timeframe. Heck, Barnes & Noble’s brand new Nook has already been hacked, its Android operating system co-opted into becoming a general purpose computer. That’s not a DRM hack per se but, it does illustrate how vulnerable digital consumer products can be.
Some eReader appliances support DRM and some do not, so caveat emptor. You have to know the limitations of each device and mesh that with your favorite content providers’ offerings. I, for one, have given up reading eBook content available through my public library because of the inconvenience and draconian rights management imposed on eBook borrowers. I tried reading Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, a DRM’d PDF version, while on a trip and threw up my hands in disgust when I found I couldn’t renew the title. Not only that, but there was a waiting list… for a file! At just over 1000 pages, I simply could not read that tome within the handful of days I was allotted so, I checked out the hardbound version instead and was glad I did. It’s a big, fat, fun book and can also be used as part of a well-balanced exercise regime. Anyway, I asked Trent Garcia, Electronic Resources Librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, about my consternation and he told me the problem "…goes back to the publishers. They think someone will steal [the eBook] and read it over and over again." He then offered that "…perhaps the larger issue is publishers feel they need to control access to the library content because it competes somewhat with other wholesale and retail business. If library users could easily download Anathem, for example, from the library web site with no limit on downloads, it might deter many from spending 12 bucks to purchase it from a retail site."
His statement gets to the heart of the problem in that publishers, in their papery heart of hearts, still think of eBooks as books, not as some new product category. The SF Public Library pays pretty much the same for that electronic title as they do for a paper and glue version, yet the virtual version costs less to manufacture, inventory, and ship. Those cost savings should be passed on down the distribution chain but I think the gleam of lucre is dazzling someone’s eyes. The reason for the hold I experienced is that, with limited financial resources, my library usually purchases only one copy, really a license, and that virtual book is also treated as if it were a corporeal one. Garcia confided that both the public and library staff are still getting used to the whole eMedia landscape and, in time, many of the kinks will be worked out of the system.