Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Trading in Wooden Blocks: Readers and the Ownership of eBooks

Writer Michael Stackpole has made the excellent metaphor that publishing isn't in the business of selling stories and information. Rather, they're in the business of manufacturing, warehousing, and distributing blocks of wood, which is essentially what a printed book is.

His point is, they've lost track of what their real business is, and it is leading them to blunders and huge misunderstandings as we move into the age of digital books, and I agree.

But in thinking about it, and in reading many of the poorly-informed and frequently-repeated posts by "advocate" ebook readers, I think they've fallen into the same trap. Many of the attitudes that readers have about the buying and ownership of books has nothing to do with stories or information (and incidentally, actual copyright law), and everything to do with blocks of wood.

Let's take a look at some of the common myths and misunderstandings about books as they relate to ebooks verses those printed things.

Myth #1: "I Bought it, I Own It."
This is the most fundamental misunderstanding, and the one on which most other misunderstandings are based.

Under the fundamentals of copyright law, you don't own an ebook. You license it. The "ownership" is the copyright, and with few exceptions, that remains with the person (or persons, or legal entities) who created the work. Under the old model, they then licensed a strictly limited portion of those rights to a publisher, who in turn sold those rights off in little bits to the individual reader, usually sharing a bit of the proceeds with the writer.

Under the new model, there may be fewer middle-men between the creator and the reader, but it's basically the same transaction. You're buying limited rights to use the work. Limited.

Let us be clear. This has not changed because of ebooks. You have NEVER owned the books you "bought." You owned the blocks of wood on which they were printed, the ink, the glue, but not the words themselves. Those were offered to your on a limited license.

But because of the nature of print books and the limitations of printing, scanning and copying technology, the physical form of the book and the content were essentially inseparable, so effectively they were the same, even though technically this was never true under law. You bought it, you owned, it, and you got to sell, loan, or transfer it pretty much any way you wanted to.

On the other hand, the existence of an individual copy ended with the life of the block of wood. A lost or burned book was gone. A frequently loaned book wore out. An old book fell apart. Your ability to abuse the copyright was limited enough that publishers and authors never saw the need to crack down on it.

In fact, they recognized (as many "information wants to be free" advocates are fond of reminding us) that such limited sharing had benefits for them and for authors. It helped find new readers, supported literacy, and the limited sharing of books acted as an informal promotional network. ("Author (X) is great! Here, read this copy of his latest and I'm sure you'll agree!)

With ebooks, this is no longer true. There is no physical form of the book, and at least in theory, any single copy can be redistributed, cloned, copied, and stored to infinity. The physical limitations of the book, don't control individual abuse of copyright and the license granted. The author/publisher have to seek other methods to control their copyright and thereby obtain some fair return on their work.

And while the publisher/author may benefit from the limited passing around of ebooks, there is essentially no inherent limitation. Being famous and popular is no damned good unless you can make money off of it.

Myth #2: "I Own It, I Can Sell It."
Sorry. There's nothing in the constitution that gives you this right. Nor in common sense either.

Okay, first refer back to #1. You DON'T own it. Never did.

Mind you, that doesn't mean you can't license the right to sell it. Publishers, for instance, do it all the time. After some initial difficulties, DVD sellers essentially license video stores and Netflix to rent individual copies.

But any grant of license to use a copyright is a form of contract, and the terms can be as liberal, or restrictive, as the granting parties agree to. Generally, the more rights you get, the more you can expect to pay for them.

Allowing, much less encouraging, such unlimited copying and distribution is a very dangerous proposition for the copyright owner.

Myth #3 - I Own it, I Can Copy It.
Refer back to #1 one again. I know that's getting old, but it's important.

You never had this right with paper books either, but for most of their life, that was rarely a major issue. Until recently the technology didn't exist for readers to make convenient, cost-effective copies of book. Sure, photo-copiers have been around for decades (but much more expensive), and more recently, computer scanners have come along (cumbersome, difficult, and time-consuming).

Pre-ebooks, the real game-changer was the Internet. If ONE person in the entire world with no life took the time to scan the latest Harry Potter and post it on the Internet, everyone on Earth could potentially have access to it. More significantly, if 300-400 people in the entire world were each willing to scan (or just type) a single page and share their work, the same result could be achieved with little individual effort and a tiny number of legitimate copies sold.

This, of course, points out the ultimate futility of attempting to place technological copy protection on books. DRM can't protect you from a few hundred trained monkeys with computers, library books, and a dial-up connection.

But just because complete copy protection isn't possible, doesn't make unlimited theft of copyright -- well -- RIGHT.

Technological protections serve as a reminder, just like those signs in the changing room that say "you can go to jail for shoplifting," as a reminder, and a subtle form of social pressure. Ultimately, the best safeguard against any kind of theft is the social pressure that it's wrong, and the feeling that if we're caught (and we might be) we'll suffer consequences, even if that's just the disapproval of our friends and family.

Yes, you can copy it, but having to break a few locks to do it, keeps you mindful that maybe you shouldn't.

To my mind, the perfect compromise is the imperfect one, where people can't just copy willy-nilly, and where copying can't absolutely be prevented, just limited. Not wooden blocks, but not rogue electrons either.

Myth #4 - "I own it, I can resell it."
Refer back to #1. YOU DON'T OWN IT!

This is one that people have a special difficulty wrapping their heads around, especially when it comes to text-books, where reselling books is a time-honored tradition.

Well, traditions change. I was in the Caltech campus bookstore in Los Angeles the other day while on a research trip, and was shocked to find that they were clearing out books. ALL the books.

Now, come to find out, this has more to do with the California state budget crisis than changing technology. They'll still continue to use paper books, though students will likely have to buy them on-line. But such a move wouldn't have been thinkable even a couple years ago, and the writing is on the wall. Paper textbooks are going away.

So is the tradition of reselling your old books.

Which I don't think is a bad thing for readers. People resell books because text-books are expensive, but one reason they're expensive is because of sales lost to reselling. The situation had been locked in a death-spiral for years. Finally here's a change for text-books to find a more natural price-point. Students (and their parents) STILL aren't going to like it, but hopefully it will be better than what we have now.

Beyond text-books, the book-resale culture is less dominant, though the old-fashioned paperback-exchange shop still thrives in certain circles, and resale books are a staple of thrift-stores.

Frainkly, I think the world can exist without these things. If books are more reasonably priced (no, I'm not in agreement with the publishing camp that thinks ebooks should be priced like hardcovers), readers benefit and get to keep their books too. What's not to like about that?

Yeah, there's no technological reason why ebooks couldn't be resalable, but there's no logical reason they should be. It's to everyone's advantage to market books in such a way it isn't necessary.

Giving up on the "blocks of wood" metaphor means that publishers and authors have to give up some of their old ways, something that book-buyers will benifit from. But the metaphor cuts both ways. Readers and book-buyers will also have to accept the idea that they aren't buying blocks of wood any more. They're buying a license to use somebody else's words, and that license is going to be, to one extent or another, limited in ways that those blocks of wood weren't.

If we all play nice, everyone will be better off in the long run. Readers will pay less for books, publishers and authors will make (smaller) amounts of money over what were formerly "lost" transactions, books will stay "in print" forever, and authors will have a bigger incentive to continue beloved, long-running series and characters.

All we have to do is be willing to give up our block-headed ways.

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  1. Excellent article, but I do disagree with your final point regarding the reselling of paper books. Places like Half-Price Books allow us to get our hands on hard-to-find and out-of-print books that are otherwise unavailable, and have introduced me to authors I never otherwise would've even considered reading, because the book only cost me 2 bucks. Now, did it cost that author a sale? Yes, up front it did because I purchased a book of his that had already been bought elsewhere. However, I now might go to Borders or Barnes & Noble to pick up his other books, which has gained him sales in the future.

    Anyway, as a writer myself, I agree wholeheartedly on everything but the resale shops.

  2. I "attend" University of Phoenix as an online student. E-books are part of my tuition & fees per class. These books are only accessible if I can log in to UoP. I can download the PDFs of the books, and save them locally, but without internet access, I can't "unlock" them.

    Can you imagine what sort of pain in the tuckus this is if I have electricity to power my laptop, but no internet access? Or if I have an hour to kill at the mechanic's, and want to get some studying done?

    School is expensive enough without having to buy books that were claimed to be included in the tuition price. UoP has determined that I would have to buy the book as an individual in order to have offline access to it. feh.