May 25, 2018

Controversy Continues as Proposed IDPF/W3C Merger Comes to a Vote

EPUB logoThe International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), the trade and standards organization responsible for the EPUB standard for ebooks, on October 14 asked members to begin voting on a proposed merger with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international organization that oversees standards for the web. Voting is currently scheduled to continue through November 4, but on October 19 an online petition was launched demanding that the voting stop to “give the publishing industry the information and time it needs to make an informed decision.” At press time, the petition had 112 signatures.

OverDrive president and CEO Steve Potash, an original founder of IDPF (then the Open eBook Forum) in 1999, has been the most prominent opponent of the merger. While praising the W3C, he argues that the missions of the two organizations are not aligned, and that IDPF would functionally vanish following the merger, raising concerns about the future of the EPUB standard, as well as the ability of many current IDPF members to have a voice in an organization with annual dues ranging from $7,900 to $77,000. In an interview with LJ, Potash questioned how the merger would benefit IDPF’s current members, and argued that the proceedings surrounding the merger have lacked transparency since it was first proposed in April.

“If this merger goes forward, the IDPF will shut its doors and cease to exist,” Potash said. “The IDPF and the Open eBook Forum was a tremendously valuable, successful community to promote and push forward opportunities for digital books and digital reading, literacy, and accessibility for the visually impaired, with global support…. They’re going to close the organization. [And] the W3C as a successor to own the intellectual property and governance over the [EPUB] spec? There’s no negotiated benefits for the [IDPF] members or the community or the stakeholders.”

He later continued, there “aren’t any assurances that in two years, there will be an EPUB…. The web has a different set of priorities. It’s not the book community, it’s not literature, it’s not literacy.”

While Potash expressed respect for W3C as an organization, he noted that the group’s mission is to “lead the Web to its full potential,” and argued that the assets of IDPF, including EPUB, would be deployed toward those ends, with ebooks becoming a lower priority.

Bill McCoy, executive director of IDPF, countered that the EPUB format is already based on Web-native technologies, and that “an acceleration of publishing via EPUB and the Open Web Platform will make it easier for readers to get access to rich and engaging content that works on all their devices, without lock-in to proprietary vendor platforms that collect ‘tolls,’” he wrote in an email to LJ. “An example of what EPUB has already enabled is the NYPL SimplyE application—it is based on open-source Readium software (started by IDPF) that is in turn largely written in JavaScript and extends the browser ‘stack’ to fully support EPUB 3.”

In a followup phone interview, McCoy said that the merger would also help translate EPUB’s accessibility features for readers with print disabilities to new types of content, such as online government documents, scientific publications, corporate reports, etc.

“Part of our mission, relating to accessibility, [is] to make sure that digital documents of all kinds are accessible,” McCoy said. “It’s not about the book business alone. EPUB’s evolution has taken it well beyond just the book business.”

At IDPF DigiCon at BookExpo America in May, IDPF president George Kerscher—who is also chief innovations officer for the DAISY Consortium and senior advisor, global literacy, for Bookshare provider Benetech—expressed support for the merger, stating in a press announcement from W3C that “I’m enthusiastic about the prospect of joining forces with W3C. The IDPF’s track record of success in developing EPUB standards for the publishing industry will be complemented by W3C’s expertise in Web standards that enable accessible rich media.”

McCoy said that IDPF had considered mergers with other organizations, such as the Book Industry Study Group, but given the W3C’s global footprint, budget, and scale, “it was clear that W3C made more sense, relative to those [accessibility] aspects of our mission.” He also drew a comparison with Adobe Flash—the once-popular multimedia content platform that has been gradually phased out as more web developers use HTML 5—arguing that IDPF runs the risk of EPUB suffering a similar fate, becoming a niche standard if it does not join with W3C.

“The book business is better off promoting a unified format….” McCoy said. “HarperCollins may not care about [the format being used for online] scientific reports, but what they don’t want to have is an ebook format that is stuck in a niche ghetto, and becomes stagnant. They also want the web to get better for publishing…. This is also about improving HTML, CSS, and other web standards to make the whole web better for publishers.”

And, regarding concerns about dues for W3C membership, McCoy said that more than 20 of IDPF’s 130 dues-paying members are already members of W3C (some via corporate parents), that IDPF members will be invited to participate in publishing-related activities by paying current IDPF member rates in 2017 and 2018, and that in subsequent years, becoming a member of W3C’s Publishing Business Group will be an affordable option to participate in W3C and help guide the direction of EPUB.

Still, IDPF’s assets would be absorbed by the larger W3C, and EPUB—the ebook standard developed and enhanced over the past decade and a half through the collaboration of dozens of publishers, vendors, technology providers, and other stakeholders—would assume a broader purpose, with traditional, long-form ebook reading possibly becoming less of a focus during future development. This remains the key concern for Potash and other opponents of the merger.

“Why are they taking 16 years of progress, shutting it off, and handing off our product [to W3C] in return for nothing?” Potash said.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (, @matthewenis on Twitter, is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.