Mass High Tech- Publishers face distribution and DRM decisions as use of e-textbooks grows
by Keith Regan Mass High Tech
No longer viewed as a dot-com-era fad, Internet-based education is rapidly gaining legitimacy and market traction. With its ability to close distances and offer access to students for whom traditional learning venues are not an option, major universities are embracing the web.
Rising along with the amount of distance learning taking place is the use of electronic textbooks. While printed textbooks remain the dominant form in classroom settings, web-based courses are seen as a natural testing ground for expanding the use of electronic books. The publishing industry is embracing e-textbooks, with The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. recently saying that 95 percent of its text catalog is now available as an e-text option. Educators also see their value.
"I became a believer in e-books and periodicals almost immediately as a teacher," said Art Clifford, a journalism lecturer in the University of Massachusetts Online program. Clifford, who works out of the Amherst campus, said he often has students in multiple time zones -- including overseas in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan -- in his classes. Using e-textbooks means easier distribution. E-texts also have a cost advantage for students -- often priced at half the cost of traditional texts.
At the same time, electronic textbooks are in the pathway of a runaway trend within digital media distribution -- the move to eliminate digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. In the case of e-texts, DRM restrictions can ensure that a book isn't copied or otherwise distributed in a way that would decrease future sales.
That said, DRM is under fire in the commercial publishing world. Led by the music industry, where many record labels are now selling digital songs without DRM restrictions, the digital-media world is starting to envision a DRM-free future. Last year's launch of the Kindle e-textbook reader from Amazon.com Inc. and a rival product from Sony Corp. may help accelerate more general e-textbook adoption and in the process put pressure on publishers to lift such limitations.
Publishers, however, say DRM is valuable in the e-textbook space. With it, for instance, publishers can make available single chapters of an e-textbook. That is a valuable option for students, Clifford said. For example, one popular basic journalism text, written by Melvin Mencher, retails for more than $81. For a public relations class he teaches, Clifford can direct students to purchase only the necessary parts of the e-textbook.
"I can select five or six appropriate chapters and my students can purchase them for about $15 -- a bargain," he added. As the debate unfolds, several New England companies will be at the center of the changes. Boston-based Houghton-Mifflin Co. and Cengage Learning, which has its headquarters in Stamford, Conn., both have joined the recently formed CourseSmart LLC, a site where six higher education publishers make texts available online for students, who use a web interface to access their texts when they need them. The approach, in which students purchase subscriptions to the site but cannot print or download the content, provides its own protections against copying and piracy.
A CourseSmart representative did not respond to a request for comment on the value of DRM in the e-textbook space. CourseSmart is at least in part a response to CafeScribe, a Utah-based company that offers a downloadable program meant to manage e-textbooks from a group of smaller text publishers.
Other New England companies taking advantage of the digital-textbook trend include Boston-based Xplana Learning, which makes an e-content delivery system that often blends print and online, leveraging the interactive functionality of the web for quizzes and links to more material on a given subject. Publishers have taken a variety of approaches toward DRM, noted Olaf Ernst, president of e-product management and innovation at New York-based Springer & Springer Publishing Co.
"We decided early on to take an extremely liberal approach to DRM," he said. For instance, universities that buy access to an e-textbook can allow multiple students to access it at the same time, while other publishers allow only one user at any given moment for each copy or license sold. "We believe an open approach is what will drive e-textbook adoption."
There is little question the publishing industry will have to deal with the DRM question at some point and will likely come to many of the same conclusions as the music business, said James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge.
However, the relatively modest adoption of e-textbooks may delay the changes that occurred in music. E-textbooks remain a nascent market, though the launch of the Amazon Kindle could help change that. Forrester has predicted Amazon will sell as many as 50,000 of the readers in a year, jump-starting demand for portable digital content. "Over time, that will drive demand for more flexible content, including content that can be read on multiple devices," he said, meaning that DRM could eventually become an impediment to the growth of e-textbooks in general.