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

The Revolution Will Be Digitised

Some rights reserved by Todd Berman

 

As Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, has noted in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, ‘software is eating the world’. Hewlett-Packard, a PC maker, is considering dropping its hardware business to invest more heavily in software. Google, a software company, has bought up Motorola’s mobile division. Dominant music, video and book companies are now software companies (or their influence is based on software technology): Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora and many others. As Andreessen says:

Over two billion people now use the broadband Internet, up from perhaps 50 million a decade ago … In the next 10 years, I expect at least five billion people worldwide to own smartphones, giving every individual with such a phone instant access to the full power of the Internet, every moment of every day.

Try to imagine the ten years after that. There will come a time, not too far away, when almost everyone on the planet has access to the internet from the palm of their hand. Try to imagine how that might influence our cultural consumption. There has never been a more important time to get our literary heritage digitised. Paper book apologists are thick on the ground these days, and I can see why. Paper books are a great technology. But if we want to save books as a mainstream cultural artefact – what’s in them, not the paper they’re printed on – we need to get serious about making them available to future readers. The problem isn’t that paper books might not survive the coming transition – it’s that the content in books of any kind might not be able to compete with social networks, viral videos and whatever media is created in the future to service the needs of audiences. To survive, books need to be just as accessible.

Those of us who care about books need to get passionate about digital books, because the companies that are making books available now are not. Amazon – the world’s biggest bookseller – could have sold anything. Apple uses content to sell devices and perpetuate their platform. Google feeds off information – but it doesn’t have to be book-based. It’s clear that the passion for the book has to come from us – readers, writers, editors, publishers, agents and booksellers. If we don’t make it a priority, if we don’t passionately embrace the future of the book, then it will disappear or be marginalised through sheer disinterest. And none of us want that to happen.