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Customers should have free choice over e-book buying, says EIBF

There is no convincing technological reason preventing e-book interoperability between different formats and platforms, giving customers a free choice to shop in different e-book stores, a report from the European and International Booksellers Federation has said. But the Federation said open e-book platforms did not suit the business models of the main players, such as Amazon and Apple.

The EIBF unveiled the study, commissioned from academics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, at its annual conference in Brussels today (16th May). The EIBF report has the support of European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes, in charge of the Digital Agenda, with the EIBF using the conference to lobby politicians and call for "interoperable e-book formats and interoperable DRM schemes".

The Federation produced the report following widespread concern that customers buying an e-book from one of the international e-book retailers such as Apple and Amazon, which operate closed ecosystems, "implicitly subscribe to this retailer as their sole future e-book supplier". This threatens European book culture by stopping customers buying future e-books from privately owned, bricks and mortar, community retailers, the
organisation said.

Professors Christoph Blasi and Franz Rothlauf, who conducted the study, found there were no technical barriers to establishing EPUB 3 as an open e-book format standard, and therefore no functional reason for the continued use of proprietary e-book formats. Although the lack of reader applications able to display all EPUB 3 features remains a short-term obstacle, that will soon be resolved by the Readium initiative being developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), Blasi and Rothlauf found.

The academics also said the second barrier to interoperability, the use of DRM by e-tailers such as Amazon and Apple, could partly be overcome by "simple" changes to the store and reader applications of those retailers.

"Ecosystem-specific and proprietary DRM measures have the same function as incompatible book formats as they restrict the access to book content to customers of one ecosystem," the report noted. However to completely do away with DRM's more  fundamental measures—including multi-lateral agreements on using compatible encryption solutions—would be needed.

The report noted that the business models of the main players in the e-book market "aiming at lock-in effects for the customer" did not fit with open eco-systems.

Eason bookseller John McNamee, president of the European branch of the EIBF, said the new report was "the most significant document ever produced" by the organisation, adding that the lack of interoperability between formats and platforms was "a real problem for booksellers in their daily contacts with their customers." He said: "We have identified something which is inherently wrong and locks out e-tailers who want to sell books. It mustn't continue; consumer choice is being compromised."

European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes added: "Interoperability is a major requirement to build a truly digital society. This applies to e-books too. When you buy a printed book it's yours to take where you like. It should be the same with an e-book. You can now open a document on different computers, so why not an e-book on different platforms and in different apps? One should be able to read one's e-book anywhere, any time, on any device . . . 

"Now is the time for open standards regarding e-books, just like has happened in other areas of the digital economy."