Monday, April 9, 2012

Digital Rights And You

I got a Kindle for Christmas in 2010 from my parents. I was a little torn at first, even though I had asked for one. I am a big-time book reader, but I wasn't sure I was ready for the transition to e-books. However, I was converted very quickly the first time I used the text search to find a passage I wanted to reference. Having my entire digital library in my Kindle (and on my phone and my laptop) is pretty amazing. I was really excited when my grad school told me I could get most of my textbooks in e-book form. I still buy paper books when I like a book enough; I'll buy the nice hardcover edition so it lasts a long time.

However, the honeymoon ended when I finished reading my first novel on the Kindle and decided to lend it to a friend, like I often do with good books when I'm done with them. Except the Kindle doesn't allow lending*. Unlike the first-sale doctrine for physical media, consumer have few rights with digital media:
Digital music downloads (just like movies and TV shows and books) come with a completely different, much more limited set of rights. If you buy a digital album from an online service such as the iTunes store, Amazon MP3, or eMusic, you have no legal right to lend that album to a friend, as you could if you had purchased a CD. If you decide after a few listens that you hate the album, well, tough. You can’t resell it. You can’t even legally give it away. 

--Ed Bott, ZD Net
* Technically, you can lend books you bought licensed from the Kindle store. But you can only lend them out once, for 14 days, and the publisher has to explicitly allow lending. Of the 42 books I have bought or received as gifts, only 3 of them are lend-enabled. 

For lack of a better term, that sucks. When I imagined the transition to a digital world, I always assumed the technology would be available to track who owns what but also to allow us to transfer ownership of content.  And it seems that Amazon has that technology already with their Kindle Library and the limited lending it supports. So if it's not the technology, what is the problem?

It's the publishers.

You've heard of the phrase "Innovate or die"? Well, the publishers are living by "Litigate or die". When a business model enters the decline phase, a company has a few possible options. It can innovate, move into a different business, or wind down and eventually cease to exist. Or it can litigate the crap out of the new business that is replacing it.
From "Darwin and the Demon", HBS, July 2004, Geoffrey Moore


















Let me be clear; books are not dying. E-book readers have yet to be able to capture the look and feel that paper books are able to present. But mass-market paperback books, those $7.99 books whose pages yellow after a few weeks, might be dying, and that scares the publishers. Of all the books I've read recently, I've only decided to get the print edition for two of them (slide:ology and Anathem, though I bought the e-book of Anathem first, then decided to get the hardcover for posterity). That means that I am not acquiring roughly 80% of my books in e-book form.

This is a major shift, and it scares the publishers. After all, what's to stop someone like Janet Evanovich from making her own ebooks and cutting out the publisher completely? The only thing right now stopping her and other authors from doing that is the publishing agreement that publishers require authors to sign to actually publish the book. What happens when the next Suzanne Collins comes along and sells their book entirely through Lulu.com?

I don't know what the answer is, but I know that the present state of e-books has some major flaws, and I hesitate to recommend to anyone to move full force to e-books.



Of course, as I've been chewing on this post for a few week, Jeff Atwood comes along and writes one of his brilliant posts on e-books, covering a lot of what I covered. His post is a great read, highly recommended. 


And then this big DOJ lawsuit hit the waves too after I wrote this post. Damn my insistence on posting on Monday mornings. Still, the lawsuit backs me up. 
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