Dan Lewis

What Does it Mean to “Buy” an E-book?

with 16 comments

The discussion around my post yesterday also entailed this comment over on another blog, and got me thinking further about what one actually purchases when one buys and e-book.  The same, of course, applies to mp3s and any other property which can be reproduced by a third party at very low (often no) marginal costs.

There is a disconnect of language here, probably a side effect of legacy businesses working with their legal teams to try and grab control while the consumer base, disorganized as it naturally is, is expected if not forced to make its arguments with the rubric set by the producers.   In other words,  “buying” an e-book is different than “buying” a book, even though from the consumer’s standpoint, it shouldn’t be.

Let’s start with tangible books — you know, the dead-tree versions that sit on shelves.  For those, there’s a pretty clear bundle of rights and lexicon, which I articulated in the comment linked-to above:

If I buy (“own”) a book, I expect to be able to do things such as re-sell, loan, rent, gift it. If I rent or borrow (“posses”) a book, I don’t, but expect to be able to do things like take it with me on a trip. If I am in your house and flip through (“access”) a book, you being a mensch aside, I probably can’t just walk out the door with it.

That’s not complete, of course, but it’s intuitive.  For centuries, we have culturally understood ownership to mean something absolute, constituting exclusivity and control.  If I own it, you don’t.  You can’t tell me what to do with it, what not to do with it, etc.  Obviously, there are going to be some limitations on my ownership when my ownership rights conflict with something in your bundle of rights in something.  But the meaning of the term is pretty clear.

What is also typically clear is how one gets to own something.  In most cases, you either buy it or receive it as a gift/inheritance.  Sure, there are other situations, but even then the transfer of ownership is most often clear, clean, simple.  Just over five years ago, two friends were over my apartment.  As one left, he noticed a DVD on my bookcase, and asked if he could borrow it.  I of course said yes, and he left.  My other friend commented, immediately after, that I would never be getting the DVD back.   We both knew he was right (and he still is).  What lawyers may deem theft by conversion I instead saw as acceptable if not annoying.  But in any event, it was clear — by any definition other than a hard legal one, my friend now owned that DVD.

Indeed, the biggest virtue of “ownership” is that it’s simple.  Everyone — even a toddler (“Mine!”) knows what it means.

E-books, specifically, and digital media, generally, muddle that up.  Right now, when you buy an e-book on your Kindle, you most definitely do not own that “book” in the typical meaning of the word “own”.  You cannot, lawfully and/or technologically, use it in the way(s) which you would have been able to use the paperback version of the same content: you can’t lend it to a friend, donate it to a library, re-sell it, etc.  Your rights are clearly delineated, I’ll bet, in the licensing agreement you entered into, but as the consumer, that’s not the bargain you expected. What is expected is the simple, common language: I bought it, therefore I own it.

The troubling part about all this is that the time-tested concept of ownership is clear, yet we have some odd expectation that it will yield to granularity in licensing.   You can buy DRM music in the iTunes store or non-DRM.  Amazon uses DRM-free content as a sales point.  On the other side of the aisle, Creative Commons has six different licenses, some of which use ther term “non-commercial.”  What does non-commercial mean?  Answering that required a year long study (in which I participated) to yield a 255 page (!) .pdf to “define non-commercial”.

It’s all way, way too complicated.  We need to find a way to keep it simple.

Written by Dan Lewis

December 1st, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized