There's no small amount of irony in selling an ebook that highlights the downsides of shifting from tangible to digital goods. But many people, including us, are persuaded by the virtues of digital reading even once we are fully aware of the tradeoffs it involves. And ultimately, we favor consumer choice. So making our book widely available on as many platforms and in as many formats as possible was sort of a no-brainer.
That's why we were disappointed, if not altogether surprised, when Apple refused to carry The End of Ownership in its iBooks Store, one of the world's largest ebook marketplaces. Although the book is available on the Kindle and Nook , there isn't currently an iBook version. This post explains why.
Apple runs its iBooks Store in the same way it runs the rest of its business—with tight quality control measures and an innate skepticism of anything that interrupts its end-to-end control of the user experience. Much as it does on the App Store, Apple vets submitted iBooks before offering them to the public. Typically, this review filters out submissions with technical flaws as a way of maintaining high quality and promoting consumer confidence.
But sometimes Apple uses its veto power in questionable ways. It has rejected apps that criticize political figures and others that feature adult content. It has approved some cryptocurrency apps and refused others. It even rejected an overtly poltical Palestinian-produced game on the grounds that it was "not appropriate"—a position the company later reversed. Apple's history in reviewing books is likewise problematic. Books have been rejected for having bibliographies that linked to webpages selling hardcover books; others for merely discussing competitors like Amazon.
Booksellers are, and should remain, free to refuse to carry books. That editorial discretion is crucial to their own free speech interests. But how they exercise that discretion should give us cause for concern when the retailer controls a significant portion of the market. For the same reasons we should be troubled when Walmart refuses to sell certain books, we should worry about the implications of Apple's tight control over its marketplace. And since Apple is the only seller for iBooks, the problem is compounded.
So why did Apple decline to sell The End of Ownership? The book is openly critical of Apple in a number of respects. We critique its embrace of DRM, its crackdown on independent repair, its complex and unreadable EULAs, its use of the deceptive Buy Now language to sell digital goods, and its commitment to hermetically-sealed business models.
But that criticism is not the reason Apple cited. Instead, the company pointed to its trademark policies. Apple noted passages in the book where we used the term "iBook" to refer to ebooks sold by Apple. But according to its iBooks Store Formatting Guidelines, Apple prefers the terms "iBooks" or "iBooks Store" be used to refer to its software ecosystem, and discourages the use of "iBook" to refer to ebooks sold using that platform.
Apple is certainly free to develop its own internal style guide to determine how it uses its long and growing list of trademarks. But why should we care? The company would likely argue that it is fighting a battle against genericide—the loss of trademark rights that can occur when a brand name becomes the common name for a category of product. Xerox and Kleenex have been subjects of corrective advertising campaigns to remind consumers that they are particular products made by particular companies, not the general term for photocopiers and tissues.
But we didn't use "iBook" as a generic term; we used it to refer specifically and exclusively to ebooks sold by Apple. So the argument is misplaced. Elsewhere, Apple repeats the common trademark mantra that a mark is an adjective, not a noun. But even casual perusal of Apple's website and marketing materials reveals widespread use of terms like "MacBook," "iPhone," and "iTunes" as nouns.
But there's another, more amusing, explanation for Apple's nitpicking about the use of this particular term. In 1999, long before it was seriously considering becoming a digital book retailer, Apple launched a consumer laptop meant to capitalize on the success of the iMac. At the time, it's professional laptops were called PowerBooks, so the new device was dubbed the iBook. Apple discontinued the product in 2006. But its legacy lives on. Ebooks sold on the iBooks Store are quizzically not called iBooks—because that name was already taken by Apple itself.
Regardless of the ultimate explanation, the fact is our book is currently unavailable to the millions of readers who buy iBooks—the books, not the laptops. We think some of them might benefit from the message our book offers. We could fight Apple on its rejection. After all, we are both IP professors with litigation experience. But Apple has too much power and too many resources for that fight to be worth the effort in the end.
So today, we are submitting three minor changes to the text of our book to appease the Style Guide Gods in Cupertino. To be as transparent as possible, we've included those edits below. We hope to see our iBook—again, the book, not the laptop—posted to the iBooks Store soon.
Page 93 - "Apple’s iBooks can only be read on Apple devices." changed to: "Ebooks acquired through Apple’s iBooks Store can only be read on Apple devices."
Page 177 - "We shouldn’t expect every ebook reader to figure out on their own how to make an iBook work on a Kindle" changed to: "We shouldn’t expect every reader to figure out on their own how to make an an ebook from Apple work on a Kindle."
183 - "Sometimes an owner will want to modify their copy for compatibility purposes—to make their iBooks work on a Kindle" changed to: "Sometimes an owner will want to modify their copy for compatibility purposes—to make their iBooks Store purchases work on a Kindle."