Wall Street Journal - September 11, 2000
New E-Book Technology
Helps Protect Copyrights
By THOMAS E. WEBER
IMAGINE A BOOK that you can't sell, give away or even lend to a
friend. Imagine that this book refuses to wait patiently on your
shelf but instead demands money from time to time and threatens to
self-destruct if you don't cough up the dough.
That book is here, and it's filled with pictures of teeth. It's a new
kind of electronic textbook for dental students being introduced
right now at New York University and other schools. Packing thousands
of pages onto a glittering digital videodisk, the e-book offers
impressive potential for learning. But to safeguard it against
copying, the book's creators have built in all kinds of restrictions
In this age of Napster, it's no surprise that authors and publishers
want to use technology to protect their intellectual property. Yet
the same tools that can prevent copying also allow publishers to sell
material in new, potentially troubling, ways. In the case of the
dental-school text, students won't actually buy their books. They'll
effectively rent them under stringent terms.
FILE-SHARING TECHNOLOGIES undoubtedly represent a threat to creators'
rights. Now, as publishers learn how to fight back, we may find that
consumers' rights aren't safe either. For many people, owning a book
or an album creates a special bond with the material, a feeling of
power from possessing knowledge and artistry. But the cure for
Napster could morph us from readers and listeners into licensees.
"We totally blow away the current book-distribution model," says
Robert T. Watkins, the founder and president of Vital Source
Technologies in Raleigh, N.C. A dentist by training, Dr. Watkins
persuaded some big dental-textbook publishers to give his e-book
approach a try.
Dr. Watkins began exploring electronic textbooks a decade ago at the
behest of Kenneth Kalkwarf, dean of the dental school at the
University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Dr.
Kalkwarf was worried about the availability of high-quality,
up-to-date texts for students. High prices prompt many students to
buy used books or forego purchasing some texts altogether. Then, the
lower sales volume makes it less attractive for publishers to produce
new or revised editions.
Dr. Watkins came up with the VitalBook, essentially a format for
storing textbooks on DVDs. The disk is portable, and schools can
tailor it to fit their program, including course notes and video
clips, all indexed by a powerful search engine.
The economic benefits are terrific, too. Right off the bat,
publishers save the cost of producing paper books. But other
advantages are even more attractive. Books are "no longer sold to
students for a one-time payment," brags the Vital Source Web site.
"Continually updated information is now licensed to students for a
recurring yearly fee." In other words, for publishers this is the
book that keeps on giving.
Join Tom Weber for a live discussion on e-books, Monday at 2 p.m. EDT
or a bulletin-board discussion with Tom Weber and other WSJ.com
The technology that makes this kind of system work is called digital
rights management. And that's why Dr. Watkins's e-book approach is
worth scrutiny from everyone, not just dental students. DRM
technology is one of the best hopes for publishers of books, music
and movies who want to sell digital wares online without exposing
them to rampant copying.
DRM SYSTEMS MAKE SURE that only someone who has paid for material can
access it. But they also make it possible to impose new charges.
You've heard of pay-per-view? Welcome to pay-per-listen and
pay-per-read. Talk to a Net-savvy publisher about DRM, and you'll
find they're salivating about the possibilities.
At NYU, students will pay nearly $5,000 to use their VitalBook disks
through all four years of dental school. Michael Alfano, the school's
dean, says that's roughly what it would cost to buy the recommended
texts in paper form. However, between buying second-hand books and
using texts in the library, many students actually spend far less, he
says. As an additional copy-protection measure, schools must agree to
make purchasing the e-book mandatory, ensuring there won't be any
customers for illegal copies.
You can e-mail Mr. Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the E-World Center.
So far students haven't complained. But the arrangement has sparked a
debate on some open-source software sites. Especially controversial
was a question-and-answer section on Vital Source's Web site, where
people who asked whether they could share their e-books were told:
"Only registered students and faculty are legally allowed to use ...
the VitalBook DVD. Any unauthorized use ... is subject to legal
Vital Source now says it erred with that posting. "Of course you can
show it to someone. You just can't make copies of it or transfer the
license," says Rick Johnson, the company's chief technical officer.
Fact is, though, when publishers sell content under a license,
they're free to impose practically any conditions they want.
Even big Vital Source fans have misgivings. NYU's Dr. Alfano raves
about the e-book's capabilities but is less thrilled that the disk
will stop working after graduation unless students pay additional
subscription fees. "It's troublesome," he says.
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The University of Texas's Dr. Kalkwarf admits that people may need to
change how they think about books. But he says the benefits far
outweigh the drawbacks. "I view this as win-win-win if everybody gets
in the right frame of mind," he says.
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