We feel we have to make a change in the way we publish our ebooks. We have to start protecting them.

We have no hard data, but a lot of anecdotal information is adding up to a coherent picture: For certain kinds of books, unprotected PDFs are exchanged massively over peer-to-peer networks and the hardcopy sales are hurt. For other books the losses appear to be small or non-existent, but I'm not terribly confident about it. It is possible that those sales too are being damaged but less so, and we're simply unable to distinguish the signal from the noise.

We have decided to start protecting our content with some hesitation and trepidation. Our open PDFs have been a popular feature with our bona fide customers (they've been popular with the thieves too, but we're not sure we care). As I started thinking about writing this blog, I received a message with this subject line:
"Thank you for your eBook policy"

Here's the core of the message:

"...I'd like to thank you for your policy of providing Manning eBooks in a simple, unencumbered format... When I purchase electronic books from others (such as Wrox through amazon.com), I have to go through all sorts of acrobatics (pun not intended)... Manning, on the other hand, just gives me a simple PDF that I can use like any other. The book is inscribed with my name and email address, which is the perfect sort of copy protection for honest users." (Complete message)

We have heard this same thing from many readers. It is tough to let them down!

So what are our options? There appear to be only two. Thout and ACS.

A new Open Source format from OSoft comes with a free reader, called ThoutReader. See OSoft home

The OSoft approach is not to nail the content to a CPU, like Adobe does with its ACS (Adobe Content Server), but to tie content to individuals through the use of a single user key that opens any content purchased by that user. This makes it hard to freely exchange open content since individual user keys reside in the encrypted content and the reader separately.

This is still being worked on and I am tremendously pleased to have found (they actually found us) a company that is small enough to listen to its customers' needs: they are actually adjusting their protection mechanism in response to our needs.

We've been thinking about the ACS option but we fear its way of protecting the content is unacceptable to our buyers who want to freely copy our books onto any of their machines. So the OSoft way looks like the likely way out for us.

OSoft's CEO says this about their approach: "ThoutReader is an open source documentation platform available free at www.osoft.com, for the distribution of eBooks and other OS documentation. While the Acrobat Reader has served us well in the past, the ThoutReader will allow users to browse, search, bookmark, and append not only Manning books, but other open source documentation [in this format] at the same time off line."

"The registration process is simple and convenient and does not require the user to log-in or be online every time they wish to use the content. There are no limitations on the number of computers a user may view their purchased content. Each individual is given a user key which is installed in the ThoutReader. Any Manning book you purchase will automatically be configured to be read by your key. Just load and go."

Soon something will be decided and put to the ultimate test--the response of the end buyer.