Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A further word on e-books and ownership

If I can find a spare moment, I try to cruise the internet once or twice a week to look for possible topics for a Type M blog. Last week, very late one night when I couldn’t sleep and was too brain-dead to write, I spent a profitable few minutes and came up with a dandy topic – from very close to home, too.

First, you should read the article: Amazon tells customer she doesn’t own her e-books.

If you read my blog post two weeks ago, it’s not big news that you’re only licensing an e-book when you buy from Amazon, but this article sort of brings the whole thing home in a visceral way, doesn’t it? Even though it was a mistake, this woman’s access to her entire e-book library was taken away from her.

I was also was quite amazed when I wrote the original post – which was more about Amazon “cyberly” looking over your shoulder as you use your Kindle – how many people wrote to me commenting, “So what? Everybody on line spies on you.”

I don’t want to get stuck in that philosophical swamp again, so we’ll move on to the topic of the day: do you think it’s a good thing that you actually don’t own e-books that you’ve purchased for your e-reader?

I can see where the company is coming from. They want to sell as many e-books as possible. They don’t want their customers handing them out for free. So if you’re caught breaking Amazon’s rules, they can toss you out of the sandbox and keep everything you’ve purchased from them. That’s how software licensing works. Companies don’t often exercise their right to take software away, but they can. Should e-books be considered under the same rules as a computer program? They are in the US – a court ruling. That’s not the case here in Canada, and I don’t know what the situation is in other countries.

In the reported case here, it was all a big misunderstanding, but the main point of the story for me is that you don’t own any of your e-book purchases made on a Kindle. To my mind, that’s too much power for them to assume.I’ll bet some publishers don’t even know about this part of their dealings with the retail giant. By the way, as you now know, Kobo and books purchased from Apple iTunes, are treated the same way.

E-books are a wonderful thing. They’re fantastic for traveling, great for people with a large reading habit and limited space for books, and a cheaper way to find new authors.

But wouldn’t it be nice if Amazon was very clear right up front that you’re only buying the right to look at work they actually own? I have to live with the fact that I don’t own the software that I buy to run my computer. I don’t want that same situation with books I purchase. What’s next? You don’t own the refrigerator you bought from the appliance store? The deal here is that corporations want as much control as they can muscle over the resale of their products to a third party. Since e-books are electronic, they can get this control, something that can’t be done with print books.

It’s high time the book industry decided the conditions under which they want all their books sold. If it’s decided that the “Amazon licensing model” is the way to proceed, then well and good, but I would think they wouldn’t be happy to get caught in the middle of property disputes between e-book vendors and readers. Publishing life is complicated enough without that.


j welling said...

The implementation of e-book usage through a reader whose software obeys the commands of the retailer does seem a bit off. However, this does not strike me as unduly harsh given what I know of pirate music (and not merely Napster/MegaDownload/Whoever).

When I was in college, professors would routinely have book excerpts (99.9 % in some cases) copied and sold to students. Kinkos even had a marketing tag for the process called "professor publishing." Of course, in due time the copyright was upheld and now it is nearly impossible to have a piece of commercially sold work copied even for personal use (I write in books. There are times I don't want to mark the original I purchased.)

The enforcement of the copyright required a legal battle [ Basic Books, inc. v Kinko's Graphics March 28 1991 ]. Here in the electronic world, the relief from potential abuse by the consumer will no require legal action. Relief by the consumer from actions of the retailer will potentially be in need of legal action.

I can understand the concern over abuse in electronic media. I can understand protecting the electronic media and intellectual property with a more constraining licensing use agreement.

You've seen pirate concert tapes. You've seen pirate album tapes (I still don't own _The Wall_ but I've certainly played in my car ...)

Pirate books ? I'm not seeing the undue caution here. Is is consumer misled about "owning" the content under terms ? Perhaps that is the distinction.

Perhaps e-book "purchases" should have the disclaimer : "You're not buying this, just so you know. If you want to buy it, get the item bound on paper."

Rick Blechta said...

Your last sentence is worth focusing on. That's where I'm really having problems. Yes, they do tell us this in the "fine print", but they also know full well that almost no one reads the fine print. It might be nice if there was something generally known by everyone who purchases an e-book, such as "You are only licensing the use of this e-book on your reader, which can be removed from the reader by us if you have been found to have broken the licensing agreement. The reason we are doing this is to protect the author's rights in the event of piracy." Or some such thing. Then it's clear and out in the open and I, for one, would certainly have no problems with it.

Think that will ever happen?

Thanks for writing in. Great comments!

j welling said...

Caveat Emptor.

I generally believe the consumers should be fleeced as sheep whenever possible. Orwell is one of my favorites and dystopian lit is properly my field of expertise (I lived through the 20th century, go figure).

I favor lies, deceit and murder in both literature and life. I write fiction so of course I understand the lie. It makes getting out of bed in the morning so much more bearable.

Once you embrace the fact that you are down the rabbit hole, the rules of Rabbitania seem reasonable. It is the embrace of an illusion that one is not down the rabbit hole that brings consternation, disappointment, frustration and ultimately depression.

The weaker hand in any consumer transaction is the consumer. When they sit at the card table and wonder who the player might be with the least knowledge, fewest allegiances, and most to lose - they should consult the mirror.

I had a wheeler-dealer uncle from the oil business explain it to me this way : you hold what you want until a bigger dog takes it away.

I don't think a consumer will ever be the bigger dog in a retail exchange. Market conditions created by regulation that artificially persist the illusion of a transaction not rigged cause only more heartbreak when they are discovered to be ineffective and transitory.

All commerce is a whore. In the atmosphere of scarcity which defines a market economy, there is no zero-sum game. The trick is to make the consumer believe there is parity in the exchange until you take the money off the dresser and shut the door behind you.

Rick Blechta said...

Good retort!

j welling said...

Still not as good as your objection.

That was a nicely reasoned piece which I obviously enjoyed a great deal.

I like this whole blog rotation a great deal and have enjoyed the insights from all of you very very much. I thought today's bit on dialogue was right on the mark. I'm a Hemingway fellow and wrote an analytical essay on the structure of his dialogue in college.

Rick Blechta said...

Glad you're enjoying what we do – and thanks very much for commenting.