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  • The e-book dilemma: should you rent or own?

    Without warning, Amazon wiped this e-book version of '1984' from users' Kindles when the company discovered that it had sold what turned out to be a bootleg edition of the book. That's what happens when you rent instead of owning.
    Without warning, Amazon wiped this e-book version of '1984' from users' Kindles when the company discovered that it had sold what turned out to be a bootleg edition of the book. That's what happens when you rent instead of owning.

    Readers of e-books are facing a dilemma: should they rent or own?

    If you buy an e-book for your Kindle or iPad, chances are you're just renting the book, not purchasing it outright. Readers used to owning books find the idea of book rental strange, but if digital book distributors have their way, owning an e-book is going to be less and less of an option both for individual readers and for libraries.

    If you read the EULA (end user license agreement) when you buy an e-book, you'll find that Amazon and Apple actually retain the rights to the titles that they sell. The e-book that you download for a fee is DRM (digital-rights-managed, or licensed), e-book jargon for renting, and like any rental, restrictions will apply.

    Your DRM e-books are for your eyes only. They work only on authorized devices. And once you’re done with them they can’t be loaned to friends, gifted, re-gifted, resold, or even donated to the temple rummage sale. Nor can you copy your favorite passages into a Word document. The Kindle DRM agreement is very specific about this:

    Unless otherwise specified, Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. . . . [Y]ou 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. . . [Y]ou may not bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

    Imagine if traditional printed books (hereinafter hardcopy) came with these sorts of legalistic restrictions?

    An end-user license agreement for a traditional printed book

    End-user agreement for a traditional, printed book (hereinafter, hardcopy). Truth in advertising requires me to disclose that there is a Kindle edition of my most recent book, A Better Pencil, but I have never rented it.

    The new economic model of rent-to-read is going to be hard for readers to get their heads around, accustomed as they are to the outmoded notion that they actually own their copies of Brave New World or The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.

    Not only that, but DRM actually gives e-book distributors the right to modify or repossess an e-book any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all. The owners of the books you rent can enter your digital device to modify or remove the content they condescended to let you read, and Fourth Amendment be damned, they don’t have to knock before entering.

    This disturbing aspect of e-book DRM caught readers by surprise a while back, when without warning Amazon wiped copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from customers’ Kindles. To do this, and to do it with a book like 1984, was something one might expect from the Thought Police, not from booksellers. Moreover, the company’s belated explanation that it repo'd the books only after learning that they were bootleg editions sold by mistake seemed like big-brotherism wrapped in newspeak.

    Now a major publisher announced that it was also going to limit what libraries can do with e-books. On March 7, HarperCollins notified libraries that they can only lend Harper’s e-books 26 times, after which the text will vanish from the library server. Libraries can buy additional 26-loan licenses if they want to continue offering a book to patrons.

    Harper defended this new restriction, insisting that e-books require a different economic model from traditional publishing. With e-books, publishers are selling a right to read rather than a physical object, so they’ve decided to charge per user, not per book. But libraries don’t limit the number of readers for any given book, and to publishers this audience of freeloaders represents a significant loss of revenue. Simon and Schuster and Macmillan already refuse to sell e-books to libraries. But Harper is willing to make concessions to the library, for a fee.

    Unlike ink-on-paper books, which can get chewed up by the family dog, left on the bus, drawn on by toddlers, or have coffee spilled on them, e-books they can remain in circulation forever. This is great for readers and libraries, whose book-buying budgets are becoming ever tighter, but it causes publishers to worry that they are seriously missing out on a chance to make more money. So instead of selling books outright to readers or to libraries, publishers want us to reimagine e-books as phone cards, which can be topped up when we run out of minutes. Or like parking meters.

    As Harper’s President of Sales Josh Marwell put it in an Open Letter to Librarians, “selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system . . . and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.” In other words, if libraries don’t agree to rent books from publishers instead of buying them, then they are threatening the very existence of books, and by implication, of literacy itself. Or the literacy eco-system, whatever that might be.

    Harper picked 26 reads as its license limit because that seemed to the publisher to be a year’s worth of two-week loans. That's because, like  printed books, e-books are checked out to one patron at a time. But one advantage of e-books over traditional print is that instead of waiting in line, library patrons could get immediate access to digital best-sellers as well as less-popular titles. If readers have to wait three months for the email that says their e-copy of Moonwalking with Einstein is ready for a two-week download, they might not even remember why they wanted to read Moonwalking with Einstein in the first place (hint: it’s about ways to improve your memory). Will readers want an e-copy of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, a HarperCollins title, if they have to wait until after the 2012 primaries for their number in the queue to come up? That’s even more frustrating than waiting for tech support to pick up the phone at Amazon or Apple.

    Perhaps what’s driving “the emerging e-book eco-system” is not the invisible hand of the marketplace after all, but payback for all those years that libraries have gotten away with buying one copy of a book and lending it to endless numbers of readers for free.

    If publishers are successful in getting readers and libraries alike to sign on to the digital-rights model, where we’re purchasing “Cinderella” books that self-destruct after a limited shelf-life or a fixed number of reads, or simply at the whim of the distributor, it may not be long before publishers decide that the only way they can continue offering traditional printed books is to extend DRM to hardcopy, to make readers click a EULA limiting our rights as readers before we can unlock our analog books, just as we learned to do with the e-books we were so eager to download.

    Computer buttons read


bcondon@wsu.edu Mar 10, 2011 1:25 pm
Once more, the publishing industry goes for a quick fix of the old system rather than trying to re-imagine the "ebook ecosystem." How long before people figure out how to unlock the ebook readers so that such restrictions no longer apply? Buyers of books are immediately aware of the principal difference between a book and an ebook: no paper, no glue, no ink, no shipping costs, no storage costs, etc. In other words, we know that ebooks should be cheaper than paper books. It's only a matter of time before publishers either tumble to that idea or undergo the same forcible transition that the recording industry has seen. Ultimately--and this is a leap, but then I'm responding to a blog entry, not writing a book--the people now making rich use of technologies like ebooks will be sitting in legislatures, and the rules about copyright will change back to what they were before Mickey Mouse was about to enter the public domain. It's fair and just for writers to get royalties and for publishers to make a profit. But the ebook ecosystem has to be based on real value, not on publishers taking every opportunity to gouge the reading public.
tonyhj@mts.net Mar 10, 2011 11:31 pm
Well reasoned, and, I think, profoundly correct. Thank you.
charlesdromero@gmail.com Mar 11, 2011 8:45 am
A couple of thoughts: I completely agree that book publishers are going about this in the wrong way, but given the complete lack of wear and tear that normal books would receive, it makes sense to limit the ebooks in some way. Maybe libraries should have to renew ebooks every year. It would make more sense than a 26 borrow limit, since there's no way they're going to limit how many people can borrow an ebook at once (impossible to enforce and reduces the potential profit). Maybe they should take a look at the average amount of times a book is borrowed before it has to be taken out of circulation and limit the ebook licenses to that many borrows, though there's probably not enough money in that for the publishers to agree. Regardless, credit is due to Harper Collins for the small fact that they at least tried to come up with something. Not a great first attempt, but it's definitely a step up from doing nothing like most other publishers opting instead to pretend as though they still have the upper hand. It's like children refusing to play a game because they won the last one and don't like the possibility of losing. Ebooks are not going anywhere anytime soon, and at least Harper Collins is trying to get in the game. Oh, and don't knock on Amazon's customer service.
corpin@aol.com Mar 12, 2011 5:31 pm
I am taking a Rhetoric course as part of my MFA. In this class there has been a lot of discussion about the new technologies that can bring literacy and good writing to virtually anyone. Using the Dennis Baron book, A Better Pencil, we have carved a great opening in the walls of resistance to using technology in the classroom. I still think that technology is a good idea, but maybe the end users need to push the vendors a bit harder on the ownership issue. On the other hand, book sellers like Boarders and Barnes and Noble that have hard copy book, might just get enough wind in their sails out of this to recover some of their shrinking market. Hope they are reading this! Tim Heath

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