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Disappearing ink: E-book self-destructs

Readers who pay RosettaBooks to download the Agatha Christie classic "And Then There Were None" will get to enjoy it for 10 hours before the content disappears.

And then there were none. Or at least there will be if readers don't pay RosettaBooks to renew its self-destructing e-book.

The e-publisher is releasing the Agatha Christie classic "And Then There Were None" under what it's billing as the first "time-based permit." That is, readers who pay $1 to download the book will get to enjoy it for a cumulative total of 10 hours before the content disappears.

RosettaBooks Chief Executive Arthur Klebanoff said the company intended the release of the book to be a humorous play on its title. "Of our list of 100 books, no title was more obvious to dramatize our format," Klebanoff said.

The company is fresh off a legal victory against publishing giant Random House, which sued it in February, claiming its sales of electronic versions of Random House titles violated copyrights. However, a judge ruled in favor of RosettaBooks. Random House has appealed.

RosettaBooks is partnering with Adobe Systems and Reciprocal to deliver the Agatha Christie book. The company claims that 10 hours is "more than ample time" to read it. When the permit expires, readers can purchase a permanent electronic version of the book for $5, but they aren't allowed to print it.

The prospect of books that can self-destruct has worried some librarians, who fear it will inhibit their ability to archive. Indeed, Klebanoff called the introduction of the book "the beginning of a brave new world of literature and technology." Although most libraries carry a paper copy of Christie's work they can store in perpetuity, librarians worry that as more and more published content goes digital, they'll have to constantly pay for the work via a licensing model--or risk losing it.

But Klebanoff downplayed those fears. "We're not making this an exclusive way to receive content," he said. In the future, the company plans promotions that will include releasing material for free, doling out fragments of books, and partnering with companies to roll out both electronic and paper books--so a reader can get the e-version immediately upon ordering while waiting for a hard copy to arrive in their mailbox.