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?
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.