E-book's biggest thorns: ownership and the concept of what loans a book

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Summary: E-books are growing rapidly, and some have suggested that they are starting to save the book publishing industry (mostly through lower costs); but they are not books in the way we have thought about books and, more importantly, they are treated like a digital file, not a book, and all the rules and regulations that implies.

Monday, 09 November 2009

(13:30:21 CST)

E-book's biggest thorns: ownership and the concept of what loans a book

Books are weird. I'll leave the weirdness, or lack thereof, of book readers to the side. Simply, books are weird. As multi-million dollar lawsuits rage about who stole what; whether or not making a copy of a CD you bought so your wife can listen to it, too, makes you a terrorist; and how much an pro-industry group can dictate the the rights of a college campus; books still have at their core the concept of loaning. Swapping. Exchanging. Reselling. Borrowing. Checking out. Libraries and used bookstores are a part of book culture in way that DVD or LP equivalents have never seemed to have. Sure, I can buy used music at dedicated stores and check out DVDs from my local library, but books seem more natural in these exchanges. Paperback swaps, loaning a favorite hardcover to a friend. It feels different when it is books. Maybe that is just me.

They also last longer, by most standards, than those plastic arts. As LPs turn into CDs turn into MP3s/M4As and 8mm turns into VHS into DVD, Blu-ray, and whatever OGV or MPG or AVI/XVID codec of the future there might be; books endure. Cheaper printing and more automated processes do lessen their longevity, no doubt. The average lifespan of the current book is presumably shorter than a lifespan of an older book. Maybe. It is hard to find this data. As a reader, I can feel the pages grow thinner and weaker, and note the glue that passes as stitching becoming more and more of an afterthought; but outside of anecdotal references, I have no idea. What I have heard, and citation is needed, is that books of current printing processes survive for about 60 years. Plus or minus due to wear and tear and care. However, it must be noted that a book from the 1970s has outlasted many of the groundbreaking file formats from the 90s, has outlasted 8-tracks and audio cassettes, and passed over the ghost of laser disc without looking back. A good quality hardcover book will be readable centuries down the road. Books are weird, and in good ways.

And now we have ebooks. Electronic books. This is a really, really open term; but we can say by ebook I mean a collection of text and images presented in a digital form. Yes, we'll include that. No, not that. Apply as you will. Ebooks are groundbreaking in many ways. They cheapen the cost of books for both publishers and readers. They allow the reader to pick a font, color, size, and all sorts of things to fit their own personal habits. They allow for complex cross-references, annotations much more robust than margin notes, hyperlinks to footnotes and references, and the ability to integrate dictionaries and encyclopedias directly into the text. Distribution, the costly expenditure of gas and time that plagues that book industry and is partially behind the drive to make lighter, cheaper quality books, becomes a matter of digital seconds. I can take a dozen books to the beach and never again have to worry about getting there and hating what I brought. And, in some cases, I can read a book in bed until my eyes get tired, and then the book into audio-mode and have it read to me by the device until I am ready to go to sleep.

At the same time, with all these boons, there is one insidious flaw in ebooks. They are making us redefine the book. Not in the sense of "fonts" and "illustrations" and whether or not it is a good thing for the reader to be able to change the size of the print; ebooks are changing the way books are owned. They are not, as defenders of the EULAs claim, merely just restating the basic copyright facts. Cory Doctorow points out in a BoingBoing post1: "[If the EULAS were about upholding copyright], you could replace thousands of words of lawyerese with four simple words: "Don't violate copyright law". Look at Baen's Webscription.net2, possibly the most user friendly of all ebook vendors, and it does pretty much exactly what Doctorow mentions. It affirms the copyright of the book, and all implied, without trying to rewrite or override copyright in favor of the distributor (note: the websites I am about to quote from are vendors, not creators of the work. Keep that in mind.)

And now, a gallery of restrictions from various ebook vendors:

  • Amazon: "Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content...solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service..." and "Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content."3
  • Fictionwise: "eBooks cannot be printed, copied, or "loaned" to others due to copyright laws." and "Users may not modify, transmit, publish, participate in the transfer or sale of, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, display, or in any way exploit, any of the content of these product(s), in whole or in part."4 I find it interesting that they use irony quotes in the middle of legalese to make things more ambigious, and also that they cite copyright laws as the reason why you cannot loan books. Look OUT, libraries, they are coming for you. Fictionwise also highlights the issue of having multiple formats available. Fictionwise, and the below Horror-Mall, insist that buying one format (and by this I mean PDF and Mobi, for instance) has nothing to do with buying another format. You have to purchase the book twice, or more, unless you buy the book as "multiformat" (which is mostly only older books or books by certain publishers). Baen, mentioned above, places no such restrictions.

  • Barnes & Noble: (friendlier, but still with hypercopyright restrictions) "Yes. With our new LendMe™ technology, you can now share from nook to nook. But it doesn't stop there. Starting Nov. 30th, you can lend to and from any device with the Barnes & Noble eReader app, including PC, Mac OS®, BlackBerry®, iPhone™ and iPod® touch. All you need to know is your friend's email address. You can lend many of your eBooks one time for a maximum of 14 days. When you use our LendMe™ technology, you will not be able to read your eBook while it is on loan, but you always get it back."5
  • Horror-Mall: (more no-nonsense, but still anti-loaning) "It is illegal to obtain an e-book without purchasing it and once purchased, an e-book may not be transferred from the purchaser’s computer or device reader to another. You can not upload it to a third party or attempt to sell it." I would also like to include this bit, which is pretty common to all of these, about refunding books: "Due to the nature of the product, we cannot give refunds or any purchases of digital goods."6

Those are just a sampling. I've seen worse (and, yes, I've seen better). If I was more conspiracy minded, I would say that the lowering of ebook prices, coupled with the major push of ebook devices, are an attempt to change how books are thought of. As it is, I think there is something of a vacuum of rights going on, and certain forces are better posed to rewrite the rules for themselves. In an argument about as useful as "but think of the children!", certain folks are saying "but think of the authors!" to justify increasing the control that distributors, not authors (who have copyright laws already), have over content. It is hard to think of a real world parallel, but imagine a retail store that claims more expansive moral rights over the products sold than the creators of the products. It has been going on for a little while, at least, because I was able to find an article by Richard Stallman, written in 2001, which deals with this very thing: "You may have noticed a great deal of hype about e-books in 2000. The reason for it was surely because the publishers are eager to establish the new world of their dreams. In that world, you no longer have the freedom to buy a book from a used book store, to lend it to a friend, to borrow it from a public library, or even to buy it without leaving a record in a corporate data base stating your identity and what book you bought. (The thorough surveillance that the FBI longs for, but dares not ask for, will be established for it in the name of copyright enforcement, and meanwhile used also for telemarketing.)"7

There is an article that deals with concepts in and around this topic in the current Library Journal: "The Future of Reading". Tom Peters says, in the "Reader bill of rights for the digital era" section, "If readers don't assert their rights in the dawning e-reading era, someone else will snatch up those rights."8 And that is the truth. He goes on to say that librarians are a big part of this, helping the reader, and lists some "planks" for the Digital Reader Bill of Rights that range from reasonable to not really, but the article as a whole brings up several interesting points about how much reading has changed in the past decade. In ways that we don't always realize.

I am ok with change, I really am. I am just worried that the average reader is not aware of how much change is actually going down.

Si Vales, Valeo


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All websites last accessed on November 9, 2009.

1. Cory Doctorow. Ebook license "agreements" are a ripoff. BoingBoing.net, November 8, 2009.

2. Webscription.net: Ebooks for Readers. A sample of the text of copyright taken from David Weber's At all Costs is representative of the rest, and reads, simply, "All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form."

3. Kindle (U.S. & International Wireless) License Agreement and Terms of Use.

4. [Fictionwise] Terms of Use.

5. Nook Help and FAQs. Under the "Managing Ebooks" section.

6. Horror-Mall FAQs. Scroll down to the Digital Downloads section.

7. Richard Stallman. Can Freedom Withstand E-books? The Ethical Spectacle May 2001. Note that he wrote this before the US PATRIOT ACT brought even more meaning to his words.

8. Tom Peters. "The Future of Reading. Library Journal, November 1, 2009.

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