Apple's iBooks 2: an Attack on Educational Freedoms

Yesterday, Apple launched its iBooks 2 for iPad - or, as it modestly puts it in the press release, "Apple Reinvents Textbooks": Apple today announced iBooks 2 for iPad, featuring iBooks textbooks, an entirely new kind of textbook that’s...


Yesterday, Apple launched its iBooks 2 for iPad – or, as it modestly puts it in the press release, "Apple Reinvents Textbooks":

Apple today announced iBooks 2 for iPad, featuring iBooks textbooks, an entirely new kind of textbook that's dynamic, engaging and truly interactive. iBooks textbooks offer iPad users gorgeous, fullscreen textbooks with interactive animations, diagrams, photos, videos, unrivaled navigation and much more. iBooks textbooks can be kept up to date, don't weigh down a backpack and never have to be returned. Leading education services companies including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson will deliver educational titles on the iBookstore with most priced at $14.99 or less, and with the new iBooks Author, a free authoring tool available today, anyone with a Mac can create stunning iBooks textbooks.

It's a seductive vision, all those "interactive animations, diagrams, photos, videos" to produce "stunning iBooks textbooks" and the undeniably attractive iPad platform, and the usual suspects were predictably enthusiastic in their praise. But cooler heads have started examining the pesky details of all this Platonic essence of digital stunningness, and found a few worms.

First of all, it seems that Apple is using a non-standard format:

Books are not technically in the EPUB format, but they borrow from it (likely EPUB 3). Certain interactive elements of the books require the files to be done in the slightly different iBooks format, Apple says.

Although it's not clear yet, I'd be willing to bet this is a proprietary format that can't be used freely for other software.

That's admittedly speculation, but this isn't: schools don't actually own any e-textbooks in Apple's new format. Whereas physical books can be passed on by students once they have finished using them – to someone in the year below, for example – with iBooks that's not possible:

An institution's program facilitator buys the books, usually at a discount, and distributes codes to students and teachers. Under the current program, an iTunes account is required to redeem the codes, which limits them to users 13 and over. And the book (or app) is tied to that individual user's iTunes account — so the school would have to repurchase books for each new cohort of students.

This is the dark side of the e-textbook revolution. Yes, it's clearly fantastic to have all those "interactive animations, diagrams, photos, videos" available to enhance learning; and yes, it's great that you can carry around an entire library in a single iPad (assuming you can afford both of those elements), but the ugly truth is these are not your books: you are simply licensing them, just like proprietary software.

That's a sad day for education, since it strikes at the heart of thousands of years of scholarship, which has been based around the accumulation of knowledge made manifest in the accumulation of manuscripts and books which can then be passed on to the next generation. With Apple's e-textbooks, that's no longer allowed: you can't simply pass on your carefully curated collection. The most other academics can do is pay Apple to have the same set of licences that you had – a rather sad come-down for the transmission of knowledge.

But Apple's "insanely great" desire for control over everything it touches is even worse than that, as Dan Wineman discovered:

if you look at the end-user license agreement (EULA) for iBooks Author, accessible via the app's About box, the following bold note appears at the top:

If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a "Work"), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.

And in section 2:

"B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution."

There are two parts to this move. The first is that Apple is controlling how you sell anything you create with iBooks Author. To appreciate the outrageousness of that demand, imagine instead that Microsoft's licence for Word gave it the right to determine how you would sell anything that you wrote with it. There's no difference: Apple is using its power as the creator of the software to limit what you can do with it even after you have finished creating. That threat has always been implicit in closed source software, but has never been so nakedly exposed before.

The other part is just as bad. Even assuming that you are willing to become a vassal of Apple in this way, there is no guarantee that it will actually deign to accept your humble offering. As the EULA says: "Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution."

To summarise, then, if you want to sell something you create with iBooks Author, you must do so through Apple, but Apple reserves the unilateral right to refuse to sell that work, without needing to give any reason whatsoever. That's no theoretical issue: Apple is already blocking apps that it doesn't approve of; blocking ebooks is simply the next stage.

Perhaps now people will understand why Apple's refusal to carry some apps is so problematic: because it is part and parcel of its attempt to lock down the way that people use Apple's products that they own. This latest move, which will effectively give it control on the iPad over what academics are allowed to publish, and what students are allowed to read, is perhaps the best demonstration so far of why Apple's closed approach is not just a minor matter of technology, but about fundamental issues of freedom of speech and personal liberty.

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