Will Ebooks Ever Circulate Freely in Europe?

In Editorial & Opinion by Guest Contributor

Considering accessibility, standards and interoperability within the frame of the European single digital market: A viewpoint.
Image - iStockphoto: Eugenio Marongiu

Image – iStockphoto: Eugenio Marongiu

By Joaquín Rodríguez | @futuroslibro

Challenges to a Single European Digital Market
In her introduction to the study On the Interoperability of Ebook Formats, Neelie Kroes, EU Digital Economy VP Commissioner, wrote: “Interoperability is a major requirement to build a truly digital society. This applies to ebooks too.”

The resistance of private companies could hold up the creation of a single European digital market, despite the existence of common guidelines of interoperability and goals established.

Unfortunately, many publishers did not take the hint, convinced as they are that it is not the authorities’ business to regulate interoperability and standards. In the same study, Kroes went on to say: “When you buy a printed book it’s yours to take where you like. It should be the same with an ebook. You can now open a document on different computers, so why not an ebook on different platforms and in different apps? One should be able to read one’s ebook anywhere, anytime on any device.”

She could not have described the challenge represented by interoperability and free disposition of acquired content any better.

Still, the resistance of private companies could hold up the creation of a single European digital market, despite the existence of common guidelines of interoperability and goals established by the Pillar II of the European Digital Agenda. “The internet is a great example of interoperability—numerous devices and applications working together anywhere in the world. Europe must ensure that new IT devices, applications, data repositories and services interact seamlessly anywhere—just like the internet. The Digital Agenda identifies improved standard-setting procedures and increased interoperability as the keys to success.”

The Publishers Association released a document a year ago called Publishing and the Single Digital Market in which we can read that the publishing industry has supposedly reached an adequate degree of maturity to face the interoperability challenge. Oddly enough, this document barely mentions the urge to enforce those basic interoperability requirements that are fundamental for the creation of this single market.

Point 8 states: “The development of cross-border availability of content services in the Single Market could be further encouraged by the European Commission by ensuring there is healthy competition within the distribution supply chain and that interoperability between devices and platforms is supported.” But are we sure that this obligation applies to regulating authorities rather than to publishers and content developers?

The European Commission was among the first transnational organizations to recognize the necessity of interoperability, accessibility, availability of content and educational resources to the OER’s (Open Education Resources) future, a sector that runs parallel to the EU digital market challenge. In the 2012 study Rethinking Education: Investing in Skills for Better Socio-Economic Outcomes we can read: “Digital learning and recent trends in Open Educational Resources (OER) are enabling fundamental changes in the education world, expanding the educational offerings beyond its traditional format and borders. New ways of learning, characterized by personalization, engagement, use of digital media, collaboration, bottom-up practices and where the learner or teacher is a creator of learning content are emerging, facilitated by the exponential growth in OER available via the internet.”

Furthermore, the document states: “Europe should exploit the potential of OER much more than is currently the case. This requires good computer skills.”

And, I would add, it also requires both a review of the intellectual property law and a coordinated strategy on standards that will finally make content interoperability possible.

Image - iStockphoto: Eugenio Marongiu

Image – iStockphoto: Eugenio Marongiu

Strengthening and Implementing Guidelines

The German government recently announced that, at least within its frontiers, it will no longer be possible for multinational operators to implement their strategies of integration and vertical consumption based on formats, platforms and proprietary devices. Measures like these will be even stronger in the field of education and in the development of educational content and resources.

Germany is the first to strengthen and implement the guidelines set by the European Union in its Digital Agenda.

The main political parties that form the coalition government (CDU, SPD and CSU) signed the “Deutschland Zukunft Gestalten” (Shaping the Future of Germany) agreement which upholds their position. In the epigraph dedicated to digital education, the following can be found: “Ländern must cooperate in order to foster the free circulation of educational content. The foundation of their cooperation must be twofold. On the one hand, they will have to provide a copyright legislation that will be education and investigation friendly; on the other hand, they will have to implement an integral open access policy. This way, they must start providing text books and educational material on an open access basis as soon as possible, through extended licensing and free formats.”

With these measures, Germany is the first to strengthen and implement the guidelines set by the European Union in its Digital Agenda, most specifically when its educational strategy is at stake. It is evident that the German government, as far as education and investigation are concerned, is priming collective interests over possession, especially when it comes to educational resources, free access, distribution and intellectual property laws. They are also promoting standard formats that can guarantee interoperability.

Publishers are undoubtedly facing an interesting challenge. Nevertheless, they should have been on the alert since the 2007 publication of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) document Giving Knowledge for Free. The Emergence of Open Educational Resources. This document clearly signaled upcoming changes: “In a digital world where educational users increasingly engage with a culture of cut and paste, remix, collaboration and instant Internet access, open content licensing will provide a vitally important facility for sharing and reshaping knowledge in the name of culture, education and innovation. While respecting the basic principle of copyright, open content licensing allows a broader understanding of information management in a way that builds on the existing system. There can be little doubt that open content licensing will become an important option in the copyright management, distribution and utilization of educational resources.”

The last line, in particular, should have prompted publisher to craft their future strategies: “There can be little doubt that open content licensing will become an important option in the copyright management, distribution and utilization of educational resources.”

No doubt the discussion—already raised in chapter 5 of OECD document Copyright and Open Licenses (which tried to determine whether it would be legal to make adjustments to the concept of “fair use” in copyright matters for educational and investigative purposes)—will be led by affected parties. Meaning those publishers who are deeply affected by the obligation to license their content on a free access basis (licenses that will allow to exchange, modify, improve and distribute original content). However, as the document by the German Government makes clear, there is still a long way to go for the free and indiscriminate use of content.

Creative Commons and New Models

Nonetheless, there is another category of publishers, those who will pave the way and explore new methods to add value to free content. They are already embracing the new digital ecosystem, starting from the creation and distribution of content under Creative Commons licenses, which will give increasingly more importance to teachers as content creators.

I would like to mention a couple of noteworthy examples.

Flat World logo 300The first is Flat World Knowledge, an independent publisher offering educational textbooks and manuals in which the user is prompted to modify, adapt and customize content through a specific author tool. Every time this process of customization is over, the students receive an exclusive URL. Thus the system, far from avoiding manipulation, actively promotes the creative use of content.

300 Unglue.itThe second example is Eric Hellman’s Unglue.it, a platform through which:

Creators make books, apply Creative Commons licenses and get paid;

  • They can set a digital book free, so that it can be read all over the world;
  • Libraries can legally use, distribute, file and preserve digital books;
  • Creators ask downloaders to contribute what they choose;
  • Creators can loan their digital books to other readers, regardless of location; and
  • You can compensate authors and editors for sharing their books with the world.

Both are examples of new business models for publishers, in times when knowledge and content will be freely created, shared and distributed through free licenses.


This article originally appeared in a different form in Trauma y texturas. It was translated from the Spanish by Valentina Morotti | @ValeMorotti

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.