Do You Own Your Ebooks?

An email from an acquaintance today in light of the Amazon library deletion scandal caused me to write a long rant about digital rights management (DRM) and ebooks and copyright so I thought I’d share some of it below.

It amazes me sometimes that we’re still all talking about DRM and ebooks. I feel like it’s a conversation we’ve been having for a very long time, and made very little progress with. But ultimately that’s the nature of an industry undergoing such huge changes. Protecting the legal rights of authors and readers while also trying to run a business and not violate any licensing agreements can be a nightmare for even the most informed publishing functionary – to an outsider I think it must look like complete and utter nonsense.

There are different issues at work here. One is the legal rights of the reader/consumer and the other is the technology used to restrict those rights.

When it comes to legal rights, most publishers aren’t selling the ebook file itself – they sell a license to use it under certain circumstances. They give the reader the file – but the reader doesn’t ‘own’ this file. This is pretty standard for selling digital content – if you sold the file with with no restrictions then the person who bought it could copy and send it to all of their friends or re-sell it themselves with no legal recourse for the copyright owner (the author, not the publisher). I don’t know of any publisher of any digital content that sells digital files without restrictions – whether they’re using DRM or not.

The second issue is a technological one. Most publishers sell their content with DRM, which on top of the legal restrictions also physically restricts readers from transferring content to other readers or between devices by using encryption software. This software is usually implemented by the retailer (Amazon, Apple or whoever) at the behest of the publisher. Some publishers, like Momentum, have asked retailers not to include DRM on our files. This isn’t because we think users should be able to own the file and use it without restrictions, but because we believe that a reader who buys an ebook should be able to transfer that book between devices without the technological difficulty inherent in using encryption technology. Basically it’s extremely frustrating for a reader who has legitimately purchased a book to transfer that book between multiple devices if it has DRM on it – and that’s why we removed it. We wanted our readers to be able to buy a book from Amazon and read it on their Kobo reader if they wanted to – and now they can.

To be clear – Momentum is still technically selling a license for our books, not the files themselves – we just don’t physically restrict readers from transferring their ebooks between devices. The reason for this is basically down to the nature of digital content – it isn’t some kind of Orwellian urge to control what readers do with their reading material. If we ‘owned’ a digital file in the sense that most of us ‘own’ paper books, by current laws we would be able to do whatever they wanted with it (including selling copies for a profit), which would in most cases violate the contract under which retailers sell ebooks and the rights publishers license from authors. Authors ultimately own the copyright for their content and license it to publishers who can then sub-license it to readers.

In the Amazon case mentioned above, the reader violated Amazon’s terms and conditions in some way that Amazon hasn’t made clear to anyone. As a result, Amazon closed their account, which means they no longer had access to the encrypted files that were stored on their device. If that reader had bought any of Momentum’s ebooks, this wouldn’t have been a problem, as they could have just moved their ebooks to a different device. As far as I know, without DRM Amazon cannot yank a book from someone’s device – but I might be wrong. At any rate, because all of the reader’s books had DRM on them, they lost their entire library (albeit temporarily – Amazon has restored the reader’s account as far as I know).

As much as I think this is a horrible situation for the reader – and this is precisely why we dropped DRM from our books at Momentum – these stories do seem to crop up intermittently and don’t seem to have any real effect on the ebook market. Ultimately the convenience of digital reading outweighs most people’s concerns about it. I’d love it if more readers cared about this stuff as it’s something I care about, and we’ve made Momentum a more reader-friendly place as a result. However, my general impression is that for the most part Amazon’s ecosystem works pretty well and these situations tend to be anomalies or bureaucratic oversights rather than some kind of concerted effort to defraud readers.

Having said that, I’m curious about what you think. Has Momentum’s decision caused you to buy more books from us? Do you seek out DRM-free ebooks consciously? Had you even heard about the story mentioned above? Sound off in the comments and let us know.

Originally posted at The Momentum Blog

Kindle Library Lending – What You Need to Know

Amazon announced this morning that they are rolling out their support for library lending to 11,000 libraries (read: 11,000 libraries in the United States). This has been a long time coming, and the deal and technology has so many moving parts I wasn’t sure if it ever would. But are libraries a part of our digital book future? And should they be?

First of all: the history. Amazon hasn’t made connections with all of those 11,000 libraries all alone. To access the libraries they went through Overdrive. Overdrive is an ebook distributor/wholesaler, who has primarily been concentrating on the library market for the last few years. They’ve done well – almost every library ebook lending service is powered by Overdrive. However, Overdrive’s service has previously only supported ePub and Adobe’s DRM scheme. That means that it only worked with devices that support Adobe’s DRM – for example the Sony eReader, Nook, Kobo, iPad (via Overdrive’s app) and other less successful devices. The partnership with Amazon opens up Amazon’s entire platform to library lending.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a one-way street. Amazon’s major strength as a platform has always been its range of ebooks. The Kindle’s range is by far the biggest of the ebook vendors. This range of ebooks is not suddenly going to be available for lending now that Amazon has joined up with Overdrive for library lending. All it means is that the same ebooks that are currently available to Overdrive’s customers via their local library will now also be available to Kindle owners (or owners of iPads, iPhones or Android devices who use the Kindle app).

Why is this so? There are a number of reasons. First of all, libraries still have to buy access for their patrons to individual titles. And they’re not all buying. Second of all, many publishers have not made their ebooks available to Overdrive for lending to libraries. Why? Because it’s still a model that has bugs.

Dead tree libraries are limited by what they can fit on their shelves, their budgets for purchasing and, in the end, that each book can only be borrowed by one person at a time for a certain amount of time. These are physical limitations that don’t apply to ebooks at all. At the moment, Overdrive imposes physical limitations on library lended ebooks – dependent on what the publisher has agreed to. For the most part it is two week lending, and only one person can borrow one ebook at a time. Some publishers (like HarperCollins) have imposed further limitations, allowing that each ebook a library makes available can only be borrowed 26 times before the library must buy anther copy of the book. As many have said, these limitations seem to be quite artificial in a digital world.

But what is the alternative? Books cost something. Libraries foot the bill for that cost in the dead tree model. It is difficult to evaluate how to make that cost work in a library environment for a book that will never wear out and could be copied by a thousand people at a time with no degradation of the original. All limitations in this model will have to be artificial, or else there will be no limitations. And that will inevitably undermine the business model for publishing books in the first place. I don’t have an answer for how to balance that equation, or indeed if libraries will even work as a repository for digital books in the future at all.

What do you think about digital libraries? Do you borrow ebooks from your local library? What kinds of limitations do they have? Why do you think publishers should support libraries (and how much should they charge?). Sound off in the comments below.