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To Maus or Not to Maus: Technically, That Is the Question

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Key Takeaways

  • What should a Maus book owner do when he can't access the multiple copies he owns on all his various devices, including the newest, an iPad?
  • In 2013, we should be able to easily and efficiently access this groundbreaking graphic novel on a device of our choice, when and where we want — but we can't.
  • The question of whether Maus will soon or ever be available on an iPad, Kindle Fire, or similar tablet is perhaps less important than having to repurchase content each time a new iteration is released.

I want to read Maus on my iPad. Yet in order to do so I must first commit a crime — namely, copyright infringement. There, I said it. Now what?

Do I go out of my way to intentionally engage in a felony and risk up to five years in prison and a possible $250,000 fine? Or, do I suck it up and read Maus another way? What do I tell my iPad-wielding students if I make this a required text in my class?

For those of you unfamiliar with Maus, it's a "very long comic book" painstakingly researched, written, and illustrated by Art Spiegelman, the son of Holocaust survivors. Maus is based on lengthy interviews Spiegelman had with his father, Vladek, and others. Aside from the comic book format, what sets Maus apart from other Holocaust memoirs is that all the Jews are portrayed as mice and all the Germans are portrayed as cats. Since the first publication in 1991, Maus has earned numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.1

Technically speaking, I already own Maus three times over: I bought Maus I back when it first became available, after reading a book review about it in the New York Times. I had to wait until Maus II came out, like so many of us did back then. Being the geek that I am, in 1994 I even purchased The Complete Maus on CD-ROM. All the added media and information, including many of the original audio interviews Spiegelman had with his father, added even more depth and weight to this work — no small feat given the high esteem I already held it in by then. And this past year my wife bought me the MetaMaus book for Christmas (but more on that later).

Now, in 2013, my Complete Maus CD-ROM is essentially unplayable on my laptop, a MacBook Air. For one thing, MacBook Air laptops don't have optical drives (nor do many newer laptops). I could technically "borrow" the optical drive from a nearby computer by way of Apple's DVD/CD sharing tool built into OS X, and then from there make a disk image — essentially a virtual CD — then copy it to the hard drive and play it from there, but that brings up another problem: the CD-ROM isn't compatible with OS X, nor should it be. It was designed for what was then likely considered cutting-edge software: System 7, HyperCard, and QuickTime.

When you think about it, CD-ROMs were designed for a different time, a pre-Google, pre-Facebook, pre-Internet-as-we-know-it time where accessing media-rich files typically involved waiting for them in the mail rather than downloading or streaming them. I can likely find some sort of old emulation software that would let me run the contents of this CD-ROM on my MacBook Air, after hijacking an optical drive and making a disk image, of course, but this requires multiple steps and a fair amount of technical know-how. I know how to do this, as would many other geeks, but how many non-geeks could do this?

At this point, it's probably fair to ask why I wouldn't just pull down the physical paperback books I already own of Maus from my bookcase, read those again, and have my students order the physical book. Certainly, I could do that. Tonight.

But that's not really the point I'm getting at here. I have an iPad. I have apps. I have an iTunes account, an iBookstore account, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble accounts (for the Kindle and B&N apps on my iPad), and I even have accounts with most of the major comic book reader platforms out there, like Comixology. Most of my students do, too. In 2013, we should be able to easily and efficiently access this groundbreaking graphic novel on a device of our choice, when and where we want. But I can't, and neither can my students. Why?

MetaMaus Chained

At this point, I should probably address MetaMaus, and many may wonder why I haven’t done so sooner. For those of you who haven't yet heard of MetaMaus, it's a large hardcover book that contains the numerous interviews, notes, sketches, and photos that led Spiegelman to develop Maus over several years.2 It's been described as a Maus scrapbook, and I view it as a remarkable volume that provides a detailed window into the author’s mind during this time. I didn't specifically ask my wife for this as a Christmas gift, but being the superperceptive person she is, she knew I'd really like it — and rightly so.

Here's the interesting part: MetaMaus comes with a DVD of The Complete Maus, perfectly playable on Windows or a Mac, perfectly accessible on my MacBook Air (though I'd still need to first hijack a nearby optical drive, make a disk image, etc.) So, on one hand I really have little to gripe about here. I have The Complete Maus, electronically, and it's compatible with my laptop.

My students would likely call this a First-World Problem. So, I understand that I should be absolutely content right now. To an extent, I am. Yet, the initial issue I first mentioned has not changed, in spite of this DVD. I should be able to access this on a device of my choice, when and where I want — assuming, of course, the battery on my iPad isn't dead and I'm near a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Illegal Rippers — the Only Solution?

This issue with Maus really bespeaks a larger problem, however, one relating to copyright, digital rights management (DRM), and cultural norms. For instance, many of us actively "rip" DVDs we own into our iTunes libraries using questionably legal, third-party tools like Handbrake or Mac the Ripper, then stream or sync the files to our tablets or smartphones. These ripper tools effectively bypass the copyright protection technology known as CSS baked into most commercial DVDs. On long family road trips where Wi-Fi is scarce, Netflix isn't an option, and the patience of a 9-year-old in the back seat is wearing thin, having a preselected library of Pixar content we already own isn't merely convenient, it's essential — as is not worrying about losing or damaging a handful of DVDs on such trips. Yet DVD ripping is still technically illegal, due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Despite the fact that the DMCA was written in during the Clinton years, well before YouTube, Hulu, smartphones, tweets, and cat videos became staples of our everyday lives, this is quite literally the law of the land here in the United States, and commercial DVD ripping is still very much frowned upon. Sure, many newer DVDs now come with a "digital copy" version of the film that can be legally synched with your media library, but most of the DVDs you've bought over the years don't have that feature included unless you repurchase the DVD or convert it through a service like Walmart's Disc-to-Digital service. Of course, even with this service, you would still have to effectively pay for the same content all over again, albeit at a smaller overall cost.

The same is largely true for e-books. You can purchase the Kindle edition of a best seller and read it at your leisure on your Kindle, then pick up on the exact same page when reading it on your Kindle app on an iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab, Microsoft Surface, etc. What you can't do, however, is take that same Kindle version of the book and open it directly within Apple's iBookstore, Barnes & Noble's Nook app, or a similar competing platform. Aside from older titles that are now in the public domain, each e-book ecosystem remains largely an island.

Authors Chained

This exact issue is what made Spiegelman reluctant to release an iPad-specific version of Maus, or presumably any platform or device-specific version. In a 2011 interview, he referred to the iPad as "performance art," and, although he is an iPad owner himself, he stressed that a true e-book version at that point was simply "too soon."3 To be fair, Spiegelman is no neo-Luddite. Like I said, there's been a CD-ROM version of The Complete Maus since 1994, and he just came out with a DVD version. I can even appreciate Spiegelman's overt admiration for what he calls the "physical book" and his desire not to have the most commonly used analog file format in history eventually vanish, as well as his concern about what he calls "Holo-kitsch" and "Holocaust fatigue." I get that, and am guessing that is why there are no Maus totebags.

Spiegelman also voiced a preference for being able to view two pages side-by-side at the same time, as one would originally be able to do with the physical Maus books. I'm not certain I entirely agree with his rationale there, as the Maus CD-ROM was designed for viewing at a minimum of 640×480 screen resolution — much lower than even the first-generation iPad. Even if you had a larger monitor back then, which might have had a 1024×768 screen resolution if you were lucky, that still only matches the resolution of the first-generation iPad, and viewing two pages side-by-side would've required a fair amount of squinting.

Perhaps a more relevant rationale for not providing an iPad-friendly version of Maus has to do with the e-book industry itself. Spiegelman expressed concerns about this industry essentially being a fragmented one, consisting of incompatible, competing file formats, and has asserted that he'll consider some sort of iPad version of Maus "when it stabilizes."

Interoperability Not a Goal

Here's the problem, though: the e-book industry won't stabilize. Ever. True interoperability is simply not within the financial best interests of the companies that currently lead the e-book market. Whether it's Apple, Amazon, Google, or some other company, each profits from a degree of exclusively, of incompatibility, in kind of a Metcalfe's Law way: the value of their networks (or mobile ecosystems) increases as the number of nodes (content, developers, apps, etc.) in their networks increases. In a "bottom line" sort of way, it all makes perfect sense. Yet, it doesn't really help consumers who want to access content they purchased on unsanctioned devices.

I wrote an article about this subject in 2002.4 Back then, I whined about the utter lack of a standardized e-book file format and opined about the benefits of having one. I griped about the lack of interoperability of the then-current e-book ecosystems, outright complained about the odious copy protection technology associated with most of them, and clearly expected better days ahead for the publishing industry. Since I wrote that article, some of the names and players have changed, but everything else has essentially remained the same. There are proprietary e-book file formats such as Amazon's ".azw" and open file formats like ".epub" that are sometime wrapped in layers of DRM to prevent unauthorized copying. There are numerous competing formats, with and without DRM, including ".ibooks," ".pdf," ".mobi," ".pdb," and a host of others.

Of course, these are just actual e-book file formats. There are also apps, which may or may not be more suitable for Maus. Other comic publishers have opted to release their content as apps, presumably for that very reason. One of my favorites is Robot 13, rightly billed as "A Robot's Odyssey to Find Himself." As of this writing, it is available as an iOS and Android app. Windows Phone is out of luck, apparently, as is BlackBerry. A Maus app of some sort, presumably based off the Maus DVD, could well be just the thing to make this amazing work even more widely accessible, appreciated, and understood.

Unwillingly Locked In

Which brings me to my current underhanded dealings. As I said, I want to read Maus on my iPad. If I make Maus a required reading in my Introduction to Critical Thinking class next year, I know I'll be staring at a classroom full of tablet and laptop users who might at least appreciate being given the choice as to how they access this content. I don't think I'm asking a lot. As far as I can tell, however, the only way I can actually read Maus on my iPad right now is to jump onto one of several peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks and download the ".cbr" (comic book reader) version of Maus that appears to be easily obtainable. Several programs are capable of reading content formatted as such, including a handful of apps for the iPad. I am technically capable of doing this. Judging by the sample pages I've seen, the quality appears to be at least as good as the Maus CD-ROM. Heck, the illegal CBR file is probably somehow based off digital images from this same CD ROM.

Yet, filching an unauthorized edition of Maus from some shady P2P network is blatantly wrong, and blatantly illegal, regardless of my intention, regardless of the fact that I've already thrice paid for Maus. It would be grossly wrong for me to even suggest that my students do this. How many of us are in the same position right now, not merely for Maus, but for other content we've already paid for repeatedly, be it music or textbooks for a course we teach? Or, if the content in question is not something we've previously purchased in a different format, how many of us are effectively locked into a specific format that may or may not be ideal for our needs? How many of our students are in this same situation, perhaps for one of our classes?

These are thorny issues. My students might refer to this a First-World Problem, and maybe it is. I don't claim to have all or even most of the answers. All I will say is that I like my iPad. I like having a library of books, comic books, and graphic novels available to me without lugging around physical copies of that same library. I suspect my students share a similar appreciation of their tablets, too. The question of whether Maus will soon or ever be available on an iPad, Kindle Fire, or similar tablet is perhaps less important than the idea of us, our friends, our family, and our students having to repurchase content each time a new iteration is released. Until then, I'll be on the couch, reading something on my iPad. I'm not saying what.

Notes
  1. Maus, described on Google Books.
  2. Paul Cesarini, EBooks: A Battle for Standards, The Writing Instructor (August 2002).
  3. Brian Heater, "Art Spiegelman on the Future of the Book," Publishers Weekly (October 11, 2011).
  4. Art Spiegelman, MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011).

 

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