E-book restrictions leave ‘buyers’ with few rights
Published : 2012-12-27 19:09
Updated : 2012-12-27 19:09
There’s a crass old joke about how you can never buy beer, just rent it. Who would think that the same joke applies to book buying in the digital age?
But that’s the case. Many people who were unwrapping iPads, Amazon Kindles or Barnes & Noble Nooks on Tuesday morning and loading them with bestsellers or classics won’t have any idea how limited their rights are as their books’ “owners.”
In fact, they won’t be owners at all. They’ll be licensees. Unlike the owners of a physical tome, they won’t have the unlimited right to lend an e-book, give it away, resell it or leave it to their heirs. If it’s bought for their iPad, they won’t be able to read it on their Kindle. And if Amazon or the other sellers don’t like what they’ve done with it, they can take it back, without warning.
All these restrictions “raise obvious questions about what ‘ownership’ is,” observes Dan Gillmor, an expert on digital media at Arizona State University. “The companies that license stuff digitally have made it clear that you own nothing.”
Typically, e-book buyers have no idea about these complexities. How could they? The rules and limitations are embodied in “terms of service” documents that Amazon, Apple, B&N and other sellers shroud in legalese and bury deep in their websites. That tells you how little they want you to know.
The rules are based, in turn, on the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with which Congress hoped to balance the rights of copyright holders and content users. “In the digital environment, that’s always been the trickiest balance to strike,” Annemarie Bridy, a specialist in intellectual property law at the University of Idaho, told me. In those terms, the DMCA looks like a failure.
Both camps have important rights to protect. Let’s start with copyright owners.
In digital-dom technology allows infinite copies to be made, with no loss of quality. Absent the usual restrictions, one could give away an e-book and still have it to read. Unrestricted transferability becomes a genuine threat to the livelihood of authors, artists, filmmakers, musicians.
So some limitation is sensible. That’s usually done through digital rights management, or DRM, which encodes copy or usage limitations into the digital file. The DMCA protected DRM by outlawing efforts to circumvent it (with a few exceptions).
The question is whether the balance has tipped too far in favor of the booksellers, at the consumers’ expense. The answer is yes.
For one thing, DRM has put far too much power in the hands of digital booksellers. Amazon, in particular, has shown it can’t be trusted with that power. In 2009, having learned that it inadvertently had sold unauthorized e-book versions of George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” through its website, the company simply deleted those e-books from buyers’ Kindles stealthily, without warning.
An uproar followed, not least because Amazon’s Orwellian behavior involved those Orwellian masterpieces. Amazon settled a subsequent lawsuit by promising never to steal a book back from a Kindle without the device owner’s permission.