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Who Owns Your eBooks?

Who Owns Your eBooks?
books and kindle

A blog post about a Norwegian woman who lost access to her entire Kindle library has sparked outrage on the internet. It begs the question, when you buy an ebook, what are you really buying?

The post came from out of the blue. A Norwegian language blog about IT, written by Martin Bekkelund. Hardly mainstream press. On Monday, Bekkelund wrote a post in English. It started:

“A couple of days a go, my friend Linn sent me an e-mail, being very frustrated: Amazon just closed her account and wiped her Kindle. Without notice. Without explanation. This is DRM at it’s worst.”

What followed was a storm in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Outraged by this alleged breach of trust between retailer and customer, comments came in their hundreds, then their thousands. The story hit the mainstream press, and spiralled from there.

Amazon Backlash

“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever buy a kindle now. I think I’m going to go for a kobo glo, which has similar specs”

That what one Twitterer wrote, in a comment typical of the outpouring of anger on the social site.

Whilst understandable, these comments miss the point. Certainly there’s no excuse for Amazon’s lack of response to the story and their apparently awful customer service. However, buying a Kobo reading device doesn’t change the fundamental issue. eBooks cannot be purchased, they are only ever licensed.

The licensing of content is not new, and not limited to electronic books. All digital content is “sold” in this way. Software, for example, has always been licensed. Even if you buy a nice shrink wrapped copy of Windows, or Photoshop, what you’re really paying for is a licence to install the software on a limited number of computers. You don’t outright own the program.

Most digital music is sold the same way. MP3s are licensed to be played on one or more machines.

Restrictive Licences

Some of these licenses are more restrictive than others. For example, when you purchase music from Amazon, you are granted a “non-exclusive, non-transferable right to use the Music Content only for your personal, non-commercial, entertainment use, subject to the Agreement” (source: Amazon MP3 Store Terms of Use). In other words, buy a CD from Amazon, and you can happily listen to it, decide you don’t like it, and give it to a friend. Buy the MP3 version, and you are stuck with it. You have absolutely no right to give it to anyone else, even if you delete it from your own computer.

eBooks are licensed the same way. Amazon’s Kindle Store Terms specifically state “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider” and comes with a whole host of conditions on its use.

Kobo has similar clauses, their terms state that “…users may not modify, transmit, publish, participate in the transfer or sale of, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, display, or in any way exploit, any of the content of these literary works, in whole or in part.”

Needless to say, these terms are not easy to find on any retailers website. It’s not in their interests, they want you to think you are buying a book just like any other. And herein lies a large part of the problem; customers expectations do not match the reality of the situation. Whilst ignorance of the rules may not be an excuse in the eyes of the law, it’s a very real problem when it causes a customer to lose their entire library. Retailers only exacerbate this problem with their pages of hard to find small print.

Nothing To Sell

So why are digital works licensed and not sold? The problem is that you cannot “sell” digital content like physical work, because there is nothing to sell. It’s an idea, a concept, a thought, and as such it’s hard to restrict in the same way a chunky book is naturally restricted. Buy a heavy tome, give it to a friend, and you no longer have access to it. Buy an ebook, give it to a friend, and you’ve just made a copy. You still have access. The publisher has potentially (in their eyes) lost a sale.

By framing the sale as a licence, along with terms that restrict distribution, the publisher can try and reinstate some of the control that is implicit in the sale of physical goods.

Generally speaking, this works. The huge majority of folks are good honest citizens. Point out to them that copying works is theft, and most won’t do it. The iTunes store showed the world that if you give people a safe, easy way to get to content legally, they will happily pay for it, even when licensing places artificial restrictions on the content.

Unfortunately for the publishers though, a written licence isn’t enough. They don’t trust their customers to abide by the rules, and so they’ve tried to enforce them with the use of Digital Rights Management, or DRM. Copy protection to you and me.

The DRM Menace

This is where things get sticky. Ask a person not to behave like a criminal, and for the most part they will respect that and will be honest in their use of content. But treat people as if they already are a criminal, by locking up their purchases in DRM, and they will hit back. And with good reason.

When you buy a print book, it’s a pretty safe bet that in a few years you’ll still have it. Buy an ebook, and you need some way to back it up. Hard drives fail, computers and ereaders break, stuff goes wrong. Without a backup, your purchase may be lost forever. Amazon and other stores might try and mitigate this problem by assuring you that your books or mp3s are safely stored in the cloud and can be re-downloaded should anything go wrong, but one mis-step such as yesterday’s apparent remote wipe of the Norwegian Kindle, and customers will lose faith in the system.

When I buy ebooks, I immediately made backups. I’m fairly tech-savvy, so DRM doesn’t prevent me from doing so, it’s easily removed. My wife though, wouldn’t know where to start in backing up a Kindle purchase. And why should she need to? It’s perfectly reasonable of her to want to keep copies of her books somewhere nobody else can delete them. In her case, it means she sticks to paper books, she has no trust in the ereading ecosystem. But for many, they’ll simply turn to the alternative – pirate copies.

Apple saw this with iTunes. DRM restrictions on music, restrictions which were not as easily removed as they are on ebooks, meant that downloads were less attractive. Make the legal version unattractive, and you naturally push people towards the illegal version which they can use as they want. Apple eventually managed to convince the record labels to drop DRM, and Amazon’s own MP3 store is similarly DRM free. All of which makes it all the more strange that they still insist on using the technology on their books.

Not all publishers agree. O’Reilly, the publisher of technology books, make all their ebooks available DRM free. The content is still licensed, not sold, but it’s made available in a variety of formats and can be loaded onto any device the customer wishes. That’s the key difference. A customer may not actually own the content, but they can use it as if they did.

The Humble eBook Bundle is sold in a similar fashion, fully DRM free and in multiple formats. Pay once, use it in any format on any device.

Even Amazon allow publishers to opt out of DRM. I don’t know a single author publishing through their KDP platform who enables DRM on their work. Writers are readers too, and we know all too well how frustrating dealing with closed or restrictive systems can be. We have no desire to inflict pain on anyone buying our own books.

Content licensing is here to stay. There’s no other way to effectively sell ownership of a digital file. If more books can be sold free from the shackles of DRM though, the model can and will work. Until then, publishers and retailers are simply colluding to push customers towards illegal copies, and that’s not going to help anyone in the long term.