January 31, 2012

Apple announces new self-publishing software to howls of outrage


Another week, another entry into the jostling self-publishing market.

Dominic Rushe and Jeevan Vasagar report in The Guardian that on January 19, Apple announced iBooks Author, a software application that helps textbook authors create interactive teaching ‘iBooks’ for the iPad.

At first glance, iBooks Author seems like a boon to students and textbook authors everywhere.  The application is free to download and textbooks capped at $14.99 probably sounds good to students who frequently fork out $100 plus per tome.  (Admittedly, good for only those students with iPads.) Almost as soon as the announcement was made, however, outrage began to mount against the perceived draconian licensing conditions of iBooks Author.

Chris Foresman in an Ars Technica commentary noted that the iBooks Author’s End User License Agreement (EULA) stipulates that ebooks created with the application cannot be sold anywhere but on the Apple iBookstore.  More specifically, if you want to give your creation away free you can do that wherever you like; if you want to make money off it, you can sell only from the iBookstore and Apple gets a 30% cut.

According to intellectual property lawyer Dan Booth, who Foresman interviewed about the EULA, this will give Apple an exclusive ‘distributorship’ of texts for sale.  Apple stops short of claiming to own any copyright in an iBooks Author-created ebook, although the EULA may have an analogous effect.  Booth says,

“The most dangerous clause [in the EULA] for authors is the distribution clause, which gives Apple the right to refuse to distribute anything created with the software.  Since sales and distribution go hand in hand, Apple could use that clause to prevent any sale, for any reason. This would apparently allow Apple to lock up with contract rights what it could never get through copyright, total control over all sales.”

Although iBooks Author is currently aimed exclusively at textbooks, publishers and authors of all types should take notice, iBooks Author may be a sign of what’s to come. For starters, Apple is effectively undermining intellectual property law and fair distribution practices.  It is a widely accepted business model that publishers reissue works that enter the public domain through expiration of copyright.  The prospect of ebooks being published with iBooks Author has the potential to diminish this important tradition.  Although a work may be out of copyright, that edition is ostensibly forever tied to Apple and its iBookstore by the EULA.

Even more annoyingly, just say you, the author, wanted to sell your work in a country the iBookstore doesn’t serve (many) or offer discounts or bulk rates, none of this would be available.  Ed Bott of ZDNet puts it another way in his commentary:

“The nightmare scenario under this agreement? You create a great work of staggering literary genius that you think you can sell for 5 or 10 bucks per copy. You craft it carefully in iBooks Author. You submit it to Apple. They reject it.  Under this license agreement, you are out of luck. They won’t sell it, and you can’t legally sell it elsewhere. You can give it away, but you can’t sell it.”

The publishing industry needs to keep a beady eye on these new platforms.  Assaults on the public domain and restrictive modes of distribution diminish cultural dialogue and help no one except Apple’s bottom line.  There is a balance to be found between the extreme ease of access platforms such as iBook Author provide, and their long-term effects on our cultural heritage.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.