Personal Electronic Libraries: Problems, Suggestions, and Ethical Issues

Going forward, I want all the articles and books that I read to be in an electronic format that is (1) searchable; (2) annotatable, (3) portable (something that I can use and annotate on my multiple devices—i.e., my iPhone, iPad, laptop, and desktop); and (4) faithful to the print version (the fonts, tables, pagination, and page layout being identical to that in the print version). Now, there’s no problem here when it comes to journal articles. Nowadays, I can get almost every journal article that I want as a PDF file that I can annotate using Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader (or, on my iPad, using iAnnotate, which works great). These PDFs are faithful to the print version. And I can use DropBox to sync the annotations that I make on one device with all my other devices.


No longer do I have to constantly use email or a flash drive to transfer a PDF that I annotated on one device to the other three devices. No longer do I have huge stacks of articles cluttering up my office. No longer do I have to wade through these stacks, as if searching for a needle in a haystack, in order to find that particular passage that I’m thinking of. It’s all searchable. And I don’t have to transport boxes of articles from one location to another when I retreat to San Diego for a good part of the summer. I just need to take my iPad with me.

Books, unfortunately, are trickier. One reason why I got the iPad versus say a dedicated e-reader such as the Kindle is that the iPad can read books in multiple formats, for it has apps for the Kindle, the nook, iBooks, and Google Books. (Another reason is that there are many different and good apps for annotating PDFs that make annotating on the iPad a breeze—I believe that making annotations on the Kindle can be quite difficult.) The problem, though, is that I don’t like the Kindle, iBook, or nook versions of books. They’re not faithful to the print versions. They sometimes have errors that were introduced in the electronic conversion process. And these versions make precise citations impossible. There are, of course, ways to cite, say, the Kindle version of a book, but there is no way to cite a particular passage in such an e-version that is as precise as referring to the relevant page of the print version. Now, ebooks.com offers many important books, including Parfit’s recent two volumes, as PDFs for Digital Editions (Adobe’s e-reader software). Unlike the Kindle version, these electronic versions are faithful to the print versions, but these PDFs for Digital Editions have a number of distinct disadvantages. They’re not portable. My understanding is that you can view your purchased book only on one computer (the one that you initially downloaded it on) and only using Digital Editions software. If your computer goes to the junkyard, your book is gone. That’s ridiculous. Also, there’s no iPad app for Digital Editions. So I can’t read it on my iPad. Moreover, the sorts of annotations that you can make within Digital Editions are very limited. Now, there is software out there that can remove the DRM (the code that controls your ability to access your book using different software and different devices) from a Digital Editions PDF and convert it to a regular PDF. I’ve tried one such software program to remove the DRM on the books that I’ve purchase at eBooks.com as PDFs for Digital Editions. In one case, it worked splendidly. It produced a PDF that can be annotated and saved using Adobe Acrobat or iAnnotate. But with other books the result was something that couldn’t be saved, leaving me unable to save my annotations. Thus, I could only make and read those annotations using Digital Editions.

So, I have a number of questions that I would like us to discuss. First, does anyone know of some good software for converting the books that I’ve purchased from eBooks.com as PDFs for Digital Editions into regular old PDFs that can be annotated and saved using Adobe Acrobat or Reader? I know that such software exists, because I’ve seen many such converted PDFs on the internet. Second, is it ethical (as opposed to legal – but, of course, we can talk about legality as well) for me to convert the books that I’ve already purchased as Digital Editions PDFs into regular PDFs for my sole and personal use? Third, do others have any tricks or software suggestions that they would like to share regarding the creation and use of their own personal electronic libraries? Are there devices, e-readers, or software that you prefer? If so, what and why? Fourth, how do authors (some of our own contributors, such as Schroeder and Glasgow, are affected here) feel about having pirated versions of their books freely available on the internet? (Note to reader: I have never posted any of my collection of ebooks on the internet.) How should we feel about the practice of making such pirated versions available? Fifth, do you make use of such pirated materials? Is it wrong to do so?

12 Replies to “Personal Electronic Libraries: Problems, Suggestions, and Ethical Issues

  1. Doug,
    You asked: “Second, is it ethical (as opposed to legal – but, of course, we can talk about legality as well) for me to convert the books that I’ve already purchased as Digital Editions PDFs into regular PDFs for my sole and personal use?”
    I would say that there is nothing unethical about your doing so for your personal use. The issue would be about sharing your purchased material, but you aren’t sharing with anyone but yourself. If you bought a book and scanned a chapter in as a PDF so you could make it more portable, that would seem to follow within the ethical understanding of ‘fair use’.
    I can’t speak to the legal understanding, however. The current lawsuit filed against Georgia State University by several book publishers challenges what appears to be a very common understanding of ‘fair use’. If a professor takes a PDF of an article and puts that article on a password-protected, student-only classroom interface (iCollege, Blackboard, etc), they argue that is a violation of copyright. But if the same professor simply linked to the library access of the article (stable link to JSTOR, for example) where the student would have to log in to see it, that would fall within the bounds of fair use.

  2. Thanks, Eric, I share your ethical intuitions. I think that it is morally permissible to remove the DRM for personal use (that is, so that I can read and annotate the PDF on my various devices). It is, however, probably unethical for me to remove the DRM and post it on some site such as library.nu.
    One minor quibble with something you said: “if the same professor simply linked to the library access of the article (stable link to JSTOR, for example) where the student would have to log in to see it, that would fall within the bounds of fair use.”
    I don’t think that it has anything to do with fair use. Sharing a link does not constitute any sort of use of the copyrighted work; it’s simply free speech. We can disseminate information (such as the URL of a stable JSTOR link) to whomever we like.
    What I find curious is that, on the publisher’s interpretation of ‘fair use’, the library is allowed to set up a physical or electronic reserve that is restricted to my students but that I’m not. That seems silly.
    The legal question is an interesting one. I can certainly modify a copyrighted work (say, the PDF of a journal article) by annotating it for my personal research purposes. But can I remove the DRM so that I can annotate it using better software than Digital Editions? In point of fact, I’m not actually modifying the copyrighted work. I’m modifying the code that a third party has put on it.

  3. Hi Dale,
    According to them, my use of their Website constitutes my agreement to their Terms of Use (see here: http://www.ebooks.com/information/termsofuse.asp). But, beyond using their website, I don’t believe that I have otherwise indicated any such agreement. Indeed, I was unaware of this and of their terms of use until you asked the question and I googled “ebooks.com terms of use.” Of course, I may not be remembering clicking some box at some point. These days I click such boxes without much thought. I don’t take them any more seriously than the posted speed limit on my local freeway.

  4. I agree that it’s surely fine to strip the DRM from a bought article for personal use. And if you lack the technical means to do so, I would think it’d also be fine to achieve the same end by downloading a pirated version of your bought book. (The law might see this differently, but there’s presumably no ethical difference.)
    On the general issue of personal E-libraries, I’m a big fan of dedicated readers with e-ink screens. I set out some Kindle-specific tips in an old post, Read Anything on Kindle. (You can use Calibre for any device though — highly recommended.)

  5. Hi Richard,
    Thanks for the tip. Regarding Calibre, am I correct in thinking that the result won’t be faithful to the print version (the fonts, tables, pagination, and page layout being identical to that in the print version) and that Calibre isn’t good at converting PDFs (with or without DRMs)?

  6. Richard,
    One might argue there was a difference between stripping the DRM and downloading a pirated version in that the latter involves some sort of connection with or possible endorsement of behaviors that are unethical—i.e., posting pirated materials online. I don’t really buy this line of argument, at least not in this case, but I suspect some would.

  7. Doug – yes, the conversion process will lose much of the original formatting, so it might not be so useful for your purposes after all. (It’s perhaps better suited for more “general purpose” e-reading, converting html copies of out of print books, etc.)

  8. A general set of de-DRMing links and tools can be found here.
    I don’t think there’s anything remotely unethical about using these, but I assume you’re more interested in arguments than head-counts. Do you think click-wrap ‘licenses’ bind? Do you feel there’s a content-independent obligation to obey the law? Do you think the way forward for academic publishing, and the ecology of knowledge more generally, is to give more control to publishers? These are the sorts of mid-level arguments that I imagine will drive the bottom-line conclusion.

Comments are closed.