Top of page

If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It

Share this post:

On October 17, I had the extreme pleasure of hearing Cory Doctorow at the Library for talk entitled “A Digital Shift: Libraries, Ebooks and Beyond.”  Not surprisingly, the room was packed with attentive listeners.

The talk covered a wide range of topics–his love of books as physical objects and his background working in libraries and as a bookseller; his opinion on Fair Use under U.S. Copyright law;  and his oft-discussed release of his own works as free ebooks under a Creative Common license in conjunction with their physical publication.

Cory Doctorow at Work
Cory Doctorow at Work. Photo courtesy of Tor Publishing.

But the focus of his passion was the prevalent publishing and ownership model for ebooks.

When you buy a physical book, said Doctorow, you own that book.  You can lend it to friends, give it away, or even sell it.  But when you buy an ebook, you license it.  Depending upon the source you purchased an ebook from, you may only have the right/ability to read it on a single device or type of device.  It often comes with Digital Rights Management attached, he noted, so you cannot make any changes that will allow you to read your ebook on other devices or loan it or transfer it to someone else. You can’t even save it and open it independently of its original intended environment.

“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” he declared.

He posed a number of rhetorical questions.  “What if a bookseller told you that if you buy a book from them, you could only read it while sitting in a specific chair using a specific light and you could not read it anywhere else? How would you feel about that?”

Not very good, in his estimation.  “And yet, that’s where the marketplace is with most ebook sales now.”

He noted the story can take an additional turn for libraries, with contractual limits placed on the lending of ebooks to patrons, with some even having technical limits in place where the ebooks delete themselves after a certain number of circulations.

His point resonated with at least one questioner, who asked leaving our ebooks to our children when we pass on.  Doctrow replied that doing so is currently difficult for most types of ebooks because of the licensing model, which he said could potentially lock up a an ebook legacy worth thousands of dollars.

This strikes a personal chord for me, as I am very interested in personal digital archiving–how people can best manage their own personal digital collections and legacy.  Licensing is yet another issue to worry about in keeping personal collections accessible over time.

There is a lot of public awareness about musics files; less so about ebooks. There’s no easy answer to these all these questions right now, but it behooves all of us to talk more about this topic and raise the visibility of the issue.

Comments (7)

  1. Thank you for addressing this issue. Purchase of the physical object (book, magazine, CD, DVD, etc.) offers a degree of ownership. Digital downloads (music, movies, books, articles), conversely, can be construed as paying for a service. True, you receive what amounts to digital files and documents, but they are not directly accessible. A program, web site, app, (thinking iTurnes) is required to render the files usable.

    As for books, nothing really compares to feeling the book in your hands–the paper in your fingers, and even the smell. The physical process of reading a book appeals to multiple senses. Music, by comparison, is intended for listening. Little is lost from switching from a CD/DVD to downloading an MP3 or MP4. If users were concerned about ownership, they could purchase the CD/DVD (or record, if that’s how they play it).

    When downloading ebooks and music, I always felt there was an unspoken understanding by the buyer that the lifespan of the product was finite. Just as information stored on a computer can be deleted and updated with ease, it seems accepted that computers, smart phones, and tablets exist in a malleable state–which extends to what is stored on and downloaded to them. A damaged hard drive, or a lost iPhone means the information is gone.* It’s a risk everyone knows and accepts (though smart people will back things up). Conversely, you don’t lose a library when you lose a book. Additionally, they are fairly sturdy and won’t “break” if dropped.

    *However, in fairness to downloading, companies often allow users the ability to download multiple copies on multiple systems. Plus, if the product is deleted, or if the computer crashes, users can often download the product without having to purchase a new copy. Again, there is flexibility.

  2. @Sharad

    There may be an unspoken understanding that digital content is merely leased rather than owned, but that understanding is both a significant departure from the way book sales and music sales worked prior to the digital age (when the purchaser did own the object afterward), and is not reflected in the content’s price. Usually, a lease on a piece of property costs less than buying that property outright. Except with ebooks, where the buyer often pays the same price they’d pay for a physical copy of the book.

    Personally, I feel that if digital content providers want to lease content to consumers rather than actually selling it (and it’s obvious they do), they ought to 1) make the agreement spoken instead of unspoken and actually call it a lease instead of misleading buyers by referring to it as a sale, and 2) charge a reduced price to reflect the fact that the purchaser isn’t acquiring full ownership of the product.

  3. I totally agree.

  4. There’s an interesting case, currently making the news, about a woman whose Kindle was wiped by Amazon:
    With the story making the mainstream press, Amazon released a suitably robotic response (see update at the end of the above article).

    The question raised by the audience member (at Doctorow’s talk) about passing ebooks on to our children is fascinating.

  5. Although not as glamorous as an APP – PDF and MP3 are recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

  6. I don’t do digital books if I want to keep the book. I have yet to move to digital books because I love the transportability of books and magazines and not being tied to an electronic item. I don’t buy books on cd’s because cd’s will be obsolete and then you are stuck with information you still can’t access unless you upgrade to the newer and better format. I have that situation now due to info on a floppy and I didn’t think about the floppy and the info on it until after i got rid of the tower that could’ve copied the info to a cd. Same with tapes I bought from a NGS weekend expo, I still need to have them copied to a newer format…thus having to pay again to get access to the info.
    Nothing like owning, possessing and handling a printed magazine, book, newspaper. And being able to freely pass it on to someone else when you want to.

  7. There is a way for ebook lovers to enjoy many of the privileges they would with printed volumes, even though ebooks will never replace print completely as far as feel, nostalgia value and style are concerned.

    The solution must be undertaken from the publisher’s end and the reader’s end, with most of the work done by the publisher. Publishers have to start listening to their readers and drop DRM. The bigger retailers already allow DRM free books to be sold (Amazon being a prime example here, where DRM is optional), so a reader can download the book then archive it or convert it for other devices. The work on the reader’s part is simple: they should store their ebooks separately from the device they purchased it for, on a portable hard drive, for example. This sort of digital bookshelf may not class up a room like a nice big shelf of printed books, but it does serve the same purpose. DRM free books can follow you from one device to the next, even if you have to use a program like Calibre to convert them, which takes just a few minutes.

    The problem is that there’s a very real fear of EBook piracy, where publishers see thousands of copies downloaded by people who won’t be paying the digital cover price. As someone who has seen this happen to his books over the years, I’ve simply concluded that it’s part of the cost of playing in the digital publishing arena. You do what you can to stop piracy, sure, but you have to accept the limitations of the law and what you can do to slow that down. In the end, anything digital will be pirated eventually, there’s only so much you can do. Sadly, this notion doesn’t sit well with many publishers, so they panic, overcharge, and limit ebook usage possibilities with DRM, frustrating readers. The publishing world has to outgrow this. The only way that’ll happen is if thousands of readers very publicly declare; “Oh, I was going to buy this eBook, but I see it’s locked down with DRM, so I’ll pass, thanks.” Every major book release is accompanied by a Twitter account, so it’s easy to make statements like this public. Even if the publisher doesn’t hear you, there’s a good chance the author or a member of their team will. When I see a book I really want locked down, I add it to my bookstore shopping list and get the physical copy. In all honesty, I don’t purchase most DRM locked books in any form, only the ones I’ve been anticipating, so it’s a lost sale. We live in a society where we can vote with dollars.

    Having said all that, I should add that I’ve electronically published over a dozen times, so I can see both sides of this problem. These days most of my books are available pretty much everywhere. DRM is disabled wherever possible, Amazon included, and when a reader asks; “Where’s the best place to buy your book?” I send them to Smashwords, where they can get my book in any format they want, DRM free. The low price ($2.99 or less), I ask for my book is, to me, the only price they should have to pay, and they should only have to pay it once.

    Thank you for this great article,

    Randolph Lalonde

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.