Closing thoughts on Apple's greedy, "crazy evil" iBooks license

This week's discussion of Apple's new license agreement for its iBooks Author program was what the State Department calls a "full and frank exchange of ideas." If you missed the debate, here's your chance to get a view from all sides.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

See this follow-up post: Apple's lawyers clean up the sloppy iBooks Author EULA

Well, that was certainly a vigorous discussion. In diplomatic terms, this week's online debate over the iBooks Author license agreement was what the State Department calls "a full and frank exchange of ideas."

At least no one sent out Predator drones.

If you missed the brouhaha, here's how to catch up. I started it with this post last week:

And followed up with two more:

John Gruber of Daring Fireball has taken the opposition position in this great debate. I've included links to all his posts here, but if you only have time to read one, this is the most thorough and recent:

If you don't understand the cryptic headline, that's a lyric from the Beastie Boys song, "Sabotage." Get it? (For you kids, the Beastie Boys are white kids from Brooklyn who made hip-hop history back when ... ah, just Wikipedia it.)

Gruber's post is a very thorough, thoughtful breakdown of the issues from a perspective that's very different from mine. It's worth reading.

And then Bill McCoy, executive director of the IDPF, took to his personal blog to offer his take:

That post is also thoughtful and well written, although it should be read with the understanding that an executive director at a trade and standards association has two top job responsibilities: cat herding and puppy soothing. (Not that I want in any way to minimize the importance of those skills in getting standards ratified.)

So let's talk about that license agreement.

"I agree with the greedy but not the evil..."

Here's Gruber's direct response:

I agree with Bott that Apple is being competitive here, but disagree that it’s an example of embrace/extend/extinguish. Put another way, over the weekend Bott called the iBooks Author EULA “mind-bogglingly greedy and evil”; I agree with the greedy, but not the evil or the mind-bogglingliness.

And later:

My “this is Apple at its worst” remark was regarding the EULA. That criticism still stands.

So mainly we disagree on the degree of badness.

"Sure seems crazy evil"

Meanwhile, Bill McCoy says all the diplomatic things you expect an executive director of a trade association to say, which makes it especially eyebrow-raising when he says Apple's restrictive licensing terms "sure seems crazy evil to me now."

That blunt assessment is tempered with a "but it could all work out just fine" coda. Here's the quote in its full context:

[Apple's] restrictive licensing of iBooks Author created content arguably helps keep their 1.0 proprietary format from getting "out in the wild" so in that light could even be viewed (OK, somewhat optimistically) as a pro-standards move. It sure seems crazy evil to me now, but could well end up being viewed warmly in hindsight, if Apple loosens up the licensing terms as they move to standard EPUB format.

And if Apple doesn't loosen up its licensing terms? I guess then it remains "crazy evil."

Here's what's crazy about it. Apple's license for iBooks Author attempts to assert rights on any work you generate using that software. That's pretty much unprecedented. Usually software licenses talk about who is eligible to buy a particular edition (student discounts, for example) or how many devices a program can be used on, or whether there are different usage terms (and prices) for personal or noncommercial use.

But this is different. Apple has the final word on how you can use any product you make with this program, if their EULA is to be believed.

And there's no question it's about the money. It's not about security or reliability or user experience. Consider this completely hypothetical example:

I write a training manual aimed at medical professionals, helping them understand how to work with insurance claims and paperwork. It's fully interactive and works exclusively with iPad. My clients in doctor's offices nationwide love it.

I think it's worth $100 a copy and want to sell it directly to my clients, two and three copies at a time. Apple says I can only do that through their store, while paying them a 30% commission.

I submit it to the iBooks store and Apple turns it down, for whatever reason they choose, or for no reason at all.

I now cannot sell my interactive book at any price. I can give it away. I can (at not inconsiderable expense and effort) turn it back into static ebook format that can be read on an iPad, but all my interactivity is gone. Apple says I can't sell it anywhere without their blessing.

I think that's unfair, and although they hem and haw around the issue, my worthy adversaries seem to agree.

Meanwhile, on a side note...

Several people pointed to Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition as an example of a program whose license is equally onerous. But it's a bad comparison.

Microsoft's terms and conditions for that Office version limit it to personal, noncommercial use. It's not at all uncommon for software companies to impose this type of condition.

Historically, software licenses dictate how and where you can use a software program. Apple's own terms and conditions for the Mac App Store and the iTunes App Store differentiate between "personal, non-commercial" use and use by "a commercial enterprise or educational institution." (Search for "PRODUCT USAGE RULES.")

Many, many programs for Windows and Mac allow for free (or low-cost) usage at home but require a more expensive license for commercial purposes.

  • If you have a WordPress blog, you get the Akismet antispam plugin free for personal use, but you have to pay for a commercial API key if you use the plugin on a money-making blog.
  • The Ninite Updater program (which I highly recommend for Windows users) is $9.99 per machine per year for personal use. For businesses, there's a separate product, Ninite Pro, which costs $20 to $185 per month, depending on how many users are on your network
  • VMWare offers an academic program where labs can get access to a huge range of software for a low annual subscription fee. But the license specifically says the software "may not be used for any purpose outside of instructional, research and personal use."

Those types of terms are common, but note that none of them attempt in any way to assert rights over the output file.

Update: Some commenters still don't get it. Let me try an example. Let's say you write a best-selling book, of which you sell 100,000 copies from your own website for $10 each. A million bucks in revenue.

Under Apple's license, all of those copies are in violation of the license agreement. You owe them $300,000 in commissions plus whatever damages they can extract from you.

If you wrote that book using Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition, you owe Microsoft the difference between the $129 you paid for the "private, noncommercial" software and the $299 commercial version. That's $170.

300 grand. 170 bucks.

You get it yet?

That's where the current discussion begins and ends. And whether you think it's "crazy evil" or "Apple at its worst" or "mind-bogglingly greedy," there does seem to be general agreement that it isn't right.

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