Do Ebook Publishers Have too Much Control Over Readers?

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A fairly (though not completely) useful dialogue among a couple of e-book blogs kicked off a few days ago about whether it is, in fact, a good thing that e-books can be distributed and read remotely. While this sounds esoteric, the question does have some interesting ramifications.

With some new e-book reading tools, it’s possible to purchase and read your books via a Web browser, from a remote server (you can do this via Google Books, and an Australian company called Booki.sh, among others). This is known as having your books in the cloud; you can buy a book on one device, then read them on a computer, a phone, a tablet, wherever you wish (the book stays on the remote computer, much like a Website). This might seem like a friendly, puffy cloud at first, but to some it looks dark and stormy. The fear is that this makes it quite easy for ebook publishers or distributors to control how much ownership or access you have to your books. You may think you own that copy of George Orwell’s 1984, but then suddenly it vanishes from your Kindle. Or, you may think that you’ve purchased a book, but it turns out you’ve only rented it, and it just vanished from your computer. Or, as Chris Walters wrote, really provocatively, on his “BookSprung” blog:

“Booki.sh is basically telling you, ‘We keep full control of your purchases, so suck it.’ You will never be able to do anything with your e-book that Booki.sh doesn’t approve of first. No matter how nice the Monocle interface looks, it fills me with loathing. It’s the most anti-consumer approach to e-book retailing yet, and you can bet it’s going to spread to other retailers in the coming years if enough consumers don’t push back.”

To which Booki.sh’s Joseph Pearson replied on the official Booki.sh blog:

“The suggestion that this is the death knell of ebook ownership really ignores what has been happening to your consumer rights for years. Amazon books can only be read on Kindles or Kindle apps. Apple books can only be read on iBooks on iOS devices. [...] …if you “own” the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that’s actually the most anemic definition of “ownership” I can think of. I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms. If we ditch that bad idea, new and perhaps better models of ownership can begin to supplant it. If a book is a URL, it is fantastically easy for you to lend a book to a friend: you simply give up access to the URL while they have it. That seems to me like a vital aspect of ownership, and an incredibly problematic aspect with files…

(Sounding more reasonable, Chris Walters replied, but only pointed out that Digital Rights Management – or book copy-protection software – is a bad thing, not really advancing the conversation.)

Almost this exact dispute, fortunately, has already had a great deal of back and forth in the world of music, where rental arrangements and services were tried for years with no luck (and an enormous loss of value for record companies) before iTunes (and Amazon, close on its heels) quickly demonstrated an ownership model that could work: music is downloaded and tied to my account, where I can move it around or back it up. Similarly, it’s not inevitable that e-books lead to loss of reader ownership, and people have shown that they are capable of rejecting a bad deal. If it’s more a question of which deal, then it is important that many different approaches for publishers and readers be tried before the right one is found. Book.ish seems like a worthy and interesting platform — and one with a lot of potential.

And as for bookmakers (besides pointing out the implications of Digital Rights Management software), this entire episode shows that readers will both want the easy access to books that e-books can provide, and be quite sensitive about what they are really buying when giving you money! Booki.sh thinks that can be best addressed with more freedom for e-books, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

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