The DMA and interoperability: what about e-books?

  • 11/11/2021

EIBF has been advocating for the interoperability of e-book formats for many years now. 

Today, with the ongoing negotiations on the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the topic of interoperability is high on the agenda for the key negotiators, especially at the European Parliament. But what is interoperability and how does it affect booksellers?

With this FAQ we hope to give answers to some of these questions.

  • What is interoperability?

In general terms, interoperability refers to the ability of two different systems, devices, products, files or models to readily connect and be compatible with one another in terms of use and access, without restriction.

  • What does it mean for e-books in practice?

It means that a legally acquired e-book should be accessible and readable on any e-reading device no matter its format.

  • Why is interoperability of e-book formats important for booksellers?

At the moment, some e-book formats and e-reading devices are not interoperable and that’s due to the systems they’re sold on. This lack of interoperability usually causes confusion among customers who do not understand why an e-book they bought on a given platform is not accessible on the e-reading device they bought from another provider.

For booksellers who sell e-books on their website, this often results in: 
     •    Customer complaints, following disappointment at not being able to read their e-book on the device of their choice.
     •    Time consuming after-sale management, as customers have to be explained why the file they bought on their bookshop website is not accessible on some devices.
     •    The loss of an unsatisfied customer.
     •    The impossibility to invest responsibly in the digital market – in a way that meets the demands of today’s customers.

Consequently, the lack of interoperability is a real problem for book sector professionals and for consumers, who want to buy e-books from different providers, but then find out it is often not possible.

The only way to contribute to the healthy development of the e-book and audiobook market is for access to such books to be opened up across devices. 

  • What causes this lack of interoperability of e-books?

The existence of a few dominant non-interoperable models, developed by some tech giants, doesn’t allow consumers to read the same e-book they’ve purchased via the tech giant on different e-reading devices.

To be specific, these tech giants have their own e-book file format and compatible e-reading devices with this particular format. However, these do not interoperate with files and hardware sold by third party businesses, including booksellers. 

We believe this practice is harmful for innovation and for fair competition. And most importantly, it is harmful for consumers.

  • What exactly does it mean for consumers?

This lack of interoperability results in consumers being locked into closed ecosystems and being deprived from their freedom of choice. 

This is why we continue fighting for further interoperability in all relevant EU legislation, including the Digital Markets Act (DMA).

  • What is the Digital Markets Act (DMA)? 

The DMA is an upcoming EU legislation that seeks to ensure a higher degree of fair competition in the EU’s digital space, by preventing large companies from abusing their market power, protecting consumers from their harmful practices and allowing new players to enter the market.

In doing so, it will set new rules and obligations for these dominant large online platforms that act as “gatekeepers” between consumers and businesses online. 

  • Why is interoperability relevant in the DMA?

The topic of interoperability is high on the agenda for many of the DMA’s key negotiators, especially in the European Parliament.

Stronger interoperability requirements, they argue, are essential in ensuring fairer competition and an equal chance for innovators: both priorities in the DMA. 

However, the current discussion mostly focuses on ensuring gatekeepers’ messaging services and social media platforms can interoperate with one another, meaning that the interoperability for e-books is, so far, not covered.

The inclusion of e-book interoperability is crucial in the context of the DMA, as it would lead to a level playing field in the e-book market, increase innovation and access to the market for innovators and, ultimately, ensure sufficient consumer choice and protection.

  • What are we calling for?

We believe consumers should be able to access and read any legally acquired e-book format on the e-reading device of their choice. 

We, therefore, call for the inclusion of interoperability requirements in the DMA to extend to the book sector, for fairer competition in the e-book market, to boost innovation and access to the market and, ultimately, to ensure sufficient consumer choice and protection.

  • What if I want to know more about interoperability?

In 2013, we commissioned a study on interoperability in order to assess the different existing file formats available on the market, as well as the possibility of establishing interoperability across all devices. 

The study, demonstrated that with “EPUB” as a standard format, interoperability across devices is completely possible.

This is even truer now that the EPUB file format has evolved and has become a standard within the book industry, which is available for reading on a variety of devices, including computers, smartphones, tablets, and most e-readers.