Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Is There Such a Thing as a Second Hand E-Book... Should There Be?

There are, on the internet, many file-sharing groups that people use to exchange material such as software, music and ebooks. Many recent example have been crowded with blatantly pirated copies of novels. These sites are hard to police and hard to shut down, leading authors to say things such as:

"When you buy a second hand ebook, you are in essence stealing from the author and the publisher. The person selling the ebook is guilty of copyright infringement and theft ... people who pirate ebooks are compared to cockroaches. When hit with the light, they scatter, but they show up again elsewhere." Jena Galifany

But I am left to wonder. Is there a degree of hypocracy in The Digital Millennuium Copyright Act, which seems to effectively protect ebook authors from any after market re-distribtion and resale--while leaving paperback writers unprotected. The author in print is not a different creature from the ebook author, so why are they offered less protection?

Perhaps it is simply a pragmatic matter. A physical object is clearly a person's possession. It is illogical to suggest that books differ from other objects in being bought only for the use of one person for the rest of their lifetime, not available for transfer, sale or bequest. Trying to enforce such a laws would bring about a laughable sort of prose prohibition with speak-easy libraries and second-hand bookrunners crossing the border from free Canada.

Electronic files, however, exist almost purely as intellectual property and their cultural meaning is still somewhat undefined. Strategies from the software and music spheres offer us ways to radically change what it means to buy a book. Like Napster we could pay a monthly fee for our online bookshelf--with the whole thing vanishing as soon as we end our membership? (Wouldn't Sony like that!) Or files could be made that self-destructed after use or after a period of time.

It may be possible to change readers so they see e-books more as a consummable or rental--but is this necessarily a path we want to go down? Not only do genre readers gain satisfaction from ownership of a book, but I think many writers want their work to persist in a person's ownership, as a possession and a part of their life--even one which they share with others in certain appropriate ways. Because as with paperbacks, a satisfied reader has a way of spreading their enthusiasm to others. I have deep, fond memories of the libraries, book exchanges and second hand books store of my youth which made me the dedicated book buyer I am today.

As nervous as I might be about making the ebook as disposable as a tissue or a taco, however, they clearly cannot be traded like paperbacks. The main reason being that the ability end users currently have to perfectly duplicate and replicate an ebook and trade it world-wide to millions of people. This ability shifts the balance of power massively towards the dishonest user. While a single paperback might be pass from person to person, it may only be used by one at a time and each use--and the mere passage of time--wear the book down until it is no longer viable. That is, time and tide already do to paperbacks what the DMCA does to ebooks. And try as I might I cannot see a way to allow friends to share ebooks, or second hand shops to trade them, that would not rapidly undermine the viability of the whole industry--especially when many epresses and ebooks teeter on the brink of profitability as it is.

Am I simply old-fashioned in wishing there was some room to allow the honest practise of transfer of ownership to apply to ebooks? Some way to limit it to a single copy and an appropriate gift? Perhaps I am. After all, a digital book also need never go out of print. Not only will my theoretical great grandchildren probably be able, in the far future, to buy a book I write today, they will also be able to reap the royalties of its persistence. Brave new world, that has such people in it. I cannot help but feel some foreboding at the thought.


Joyce Ellen Armond said...

"...their cultural meaning is still somewhat undefined."

That's exactly it. It's a new medium. We'll find what works. We always do.

robeiae said...

It seems to me that when you purchase a parerback book, you are paying for the physical object. It becomes your property to do with as you wish. You can burn it, use it to line your birdcage, whatever. You never have to read it. When you purchase an e-book, you are really paying for access to the story, much as you pay an ISP for access to the internet. There is no transfer of property--it's a service--so there's nothing you can give or sell to someone else.

Good stuff. :)

Peggy K said...

Am I simply old-fashioned in wishing there was some room to allow the honest practise of transfer of ownership to apply to ebooks?

If you're old-fashioned, I'm old-fashioned in the same way. I like to pass on books that I've enjoyed reading to other people. I've also been introduced to new authors when people loaned me their books. I just don't think it's practical to tell people to go out and buy a book they've never heard of simply on my recommendation.

There has to be a solution, but I'm not sure what it is. I love to re-read books, too, but I doubt I'd maintain a collection of e-books if I had to pay a monthly fee. There is also the issue of software compatibility - will the e-book I purchased today still be readable 10 years from now? Maybe I have a skewed point of view because I'm a book hoarder (and I find it uncomfortable to read from my laptop in bed), but I doubt that printed books will ever go completely out of style.

Unknown said...

I agree that there has to be a solution, but not sure what it might be. This is a brave new world we are in and it's going to be one slow step at a time.

Tori O. said...

Your post raised a lot of interesting points, and questions as well.

It is a new situation, and it make take some years before it's all sorted out. I hoard as well, so it's rare that I give away my stuff, but I often find new authors by stopping by the library.

Hopefully the solution will make its appearance in the next couple of years.