Tuesday, June 05, 2012

EPUB's developer takes sides in the Justice Department's eBook price-fixing case


I just returned from Book Expo America in New York City. While I was there, I attended the International Digital Publishing Forum's Digital Book 2012 Conference. On the first day of the event, the IDPF apparently took sides against the Justice Department's eBook price-fixing case, and it did so in a particularly cowardly and damaging way.

First, I'll briefly describe the charter of the IDPF--it's the organization that develops the specifications for the EPUB format (the current version is EPUB 3.0.) I’m a member of two large, well-recognized international technical standards organizations: The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and the Audio Engineering Society. Despite the many political and legal battles that the movie, television and recording industries have found themselves in over the years, to my knowledge, neither group has ever taken a position on legislation, litigation or political issues. Standards organizations maintain their credibility by taking a neutral stance on everything except the technical standards that they accept and manage. That's what made the IDPF's actions on Monday so surprising.

At the start of one of the morning sessions, a panel discussion that included Madeline McIntosh from Random House (the only Big 6 publisher not charged by the Justice Department,) Bill McCoy, the Executive Director of the IDPF, told the audience that questions about the Justice Department's case, agency pricing and related topics would be off limits. That made perfect sense, and suggested that the IDPF was going to take a "hands off" approach.

However, after lunch, McCoy introduced Paul Aiken of the Authors Guild. Aiken took the stage and launched into an unscheduled 30-minute-long screed against Amazon and the Justice Department's case. I've written extensively about the Authors Guild's position--suffice it to say that Aiken added nothing new and did no better a job than other Authors Guild representatives of explaining how higher eBook prices from the Big 6 are good for consumers, or under what grounds the five publishers in the original case were justified in taking allegedly illegal action in order to prevent what they saw as Amazon establishing a monopoly in eBooks. There was no subsequent presentation of any alternative points of view, and McCoy led the audience to believe that the IDPF concurred with the Authors Guild’s position.

I confronted McCoy after Aiken's presentation to find out why the IDPF had chosen to take sides and refused to allow any discussion of other viewpoints, but he brushed me off and refused to answer any questions until the conference ended. In any event, should Mr. McCoy not believe it beneath him to respond to an industry analyst and blogger, I’d be happy to update this post with his response.

If Mr. McCoy does respond, here are the questions that he should answer—the same questions that I tried to ask him on Monday:

* Why was Mr. Aiken added to the schedule at the last minute?
* Did Mr. McCoy know that Mr. Aiken was going to talk about Amazon and the Justice Department?
* If Mr. McCoy didn't know about what Mr. Aiken was going to say, was misled by or didn't agree with Mr. Aiken, why didn't he make it clear at the end of his presentation that the opinion presented was that of the Authors Guild and not the IDPF?
* If Mr. McCoy did know, at least in general terms, what Mr. Aiken was going to say, why didn’t he give supporters of the Justice Department’s case an equal opportunity to present their side of the story to the conference’s attendees?

In short, the IDPF's role shifted last Monday from a standards-setting body to an industry advocacy organization, thanks to an exceptionally poor decision by Bill McCoy or his board. Companies that don't agree with the IDPF's position are even less likely to adopt or support EPUB than they were before Monday, which will result in further marginalization of the EPUB format, which is already a shambles due to incompatible extensions and DRM schemes that make it impossible to read supposedly "EPUB-compatible" documents on supposedly "EPUB-compatible" devices.
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