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.
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.