If the dynamics of scholarly PDFs are similar to the dynamics of online music sales, then one thing we should expect in the future is for publishers to add DRM to PDFs to create scarcity and force sales.
We have DRMy aspects of PDFs right now, kinda. Some online sites add watermarks to PDFs listing where you downloaded it, when, and using whose authorization. This doesn’t actually control how you use the PDF, of course, but it does help them track it as it circulates — and it also may attempt to influence your behavior by letting you know They’re Watching.
The ironic thing is that as scholarship gets more and more digital there are lots of things that publishers can do to add value to PDFs. Making them small, for instance — we all loath twenty page articles that take forever to print because they are twenty megs big. As people do more and more annotation and exportation of selections of PDFs, the qualities of the underlying text — how well it’s “OCR’d” — really starts to matter. Good metadata stuck inside of PDFs means that when we import them into our favorite bibliography programs we don’t have to do tons of manual entry.
These are areas where publishers could really do something to create a quality product that authors and editors can not. Perhaps I am wrong to be cynical, but I think they might take the easier route and make PDFs less useful, rather than more useful. If I understand it correctly, for instance, it is not that hard to create PDFs that don’t allow annotation, or don’t allow changes (such as annotations) to be saved. Of course, I understand that it is pretty easy to defeat this sort of encryption, but how much time do we want to spend jailbreaking PDFs? And when publishers do begin locking down scholarly formats what functionality will they accidentally break in their attempts to secure their formats?
On the Ebook front, the situation is different — I think the fact that many of us (I’m certainly a frequent offender on this one) are buying ebooks from Amazon in great numbers indicates that they have already gotten de facto acceptance from the scholarly community about a format that makes exporting annotations impossible. I’m in a situation where I’ll read a book on my kindle, and then ILL it, photocopy the chapter I want to teach, digitize it, and post it on my class website. How much sense does this make? According to Amazon, a lot.
We’ll see how it all plays out. If you had told us ten years ago that DRM free music downloads would be ubiquitous, profitable, and legal no-one would have believed it. I think we forget what a success story that was. Will we have the same sort of success in the future with scholarly format? I think a lot remains to be seen.