Ebooks have always been difficult to define.
Publishers used to claim that the ebook was just another delivery method for the author’s work, so naturally belonged implicitly under volume rights. That didn’t last. In 2001 Random House Inc lost a court case against Rosetta Books for trying to define them as part of volume rights.
Once it was established that ebook rights needed to be explicitly defined in the contract, definitions emerged which confined the ebook to being an electronic replica of a printed book. They used words like ‘verbatim’, ‘in whole’, ‘unaltered’ etc in a form ‘primarily designed for reading’.
But it is very difficult to make a water-tight definition that can’t be mistaken for anything else. On the Ebook Strategy course I teach at Book House, we always try, but ebooks are very difficult to pin down. But although we can’t define it, we feel we instinctively know what an ebook is when we see one.
Now it looks as if ebooks are becoming even harder to pin down. The ebook clause is evolving again. This time the definitions aim to allow for enhanced editions, giving the publisher scope to make full use of the the features of ePub3 described in my last post. Recent examples include the use of words such as ‘additional materials’ of various kinds to ‘enrich’ and enhance’ the reading experience. Does the intuitive “knowing it when we see it” still apply? If it has the full text of the book at its heart, with extra material added at the beginning or end, yes, we are happy to say it’s still basically an ebook. But if the text itself is broken up, re-interpreted with images and audio, and perhaps even accessed non-sequentially, is it still an ebook? Or has it become something else? If so, what?
This is very exciting for readers, but the worry is that if the ebook is defined too broadly, it will encroach onto other rights, such as film, or app rights. The challenge now is to hammer out new definitions that accurately describe the ebook in all its glory, without being so loose that anything goes.
Or will the divide disappear altogether, and this become another front line of convergence of media.
Ebooks have been around for just over 10 years, and in the mass market only for about 3 years. It’s very early days for this new technology. We are still making ebooks that look like books. The first cars looked just like carriages. Just as the very first car manufacturers could not imagine our sleek, fast cars of today, so we cannot imagine the ebooks of 2111. I wish we could fast-forward, and take a look.