Books Media Writing

Ebook (in)sanity

I just had a brief piece published over at Library Journal entitled Ebook Sanity. It was something that just poured out of my head unchecked one day, and I was lucky enough to find a home for it as a part of the build up to the upcoming Library Journal Ebook Summit. Here’s a very short teaser:

…consider the idea that the First Sale principle doesn’t apply to ebooks and other digital content. Maybe this is the fact: information in the digital age is such a different beast than in the print age that we not only shouldn’t draw analogies but we actually can’t.

I hope that you head over and read it. Also take a look at the other excellent essays linked off the side from Eric Hellman, Barbara Fister, and Char Booth (holy hell how did I end up in a set with those people? I’m so not worthy). I would love to hear any thoughts you might have on the topic…I’m still forming my conclusions around some of these issues. How do you think libraries can and should react to ebooks?

One reply on “Ebook (in)sanity”

Yes, libraries should battle with ebook publishers and distributors to get the rights we want.

However, now that you’ve inspired me to think it over, I’ve decided that digital ebook files are physical media.

We tend to think of digital information as something bodiless – just a lot of zeros and ones. But in fact, information on a hard drive is stored as the magnetic alignment of the grains of a carbon-based alloy. On a chip, information is stored as the presence or absence of electrons in the chip’s capacitors. The grains are physical entities. One might argue philosophically that electrons are not exactly physical entities, but if you study them, you’re doing physics – the study of the physical world.

Maybe it’s better to describe a digital file as a “state” more than an “object.” Nonetheless, it’s still physical.

The grains on the hard drive platter, the electrons in the chip’s capacitors – they are indeed analogous to the inked letters on a paper page. No one may peruse a digital file without reliance on physical media. The content of an ebook is never without a physical container. Each instance of an ebook, with or without an e-reading device, is a separate physical entity.

So it’s possible to apply the First Sale doctrine to digital files. Copying an ebook file is arguably the same thing as copying an ink-on-paper book. From this point of view, such files can be bought and sold just as traditional books are bought and sold.

However true that may be theoretically, though, there is an important difference – you can loan, donate, or sell a digital file without letting go of it in the process. The file’s creator, or its borrower, recipient, or purchaser, all have equal control over the file. They all may make unlimited copies and distribute them without having to give up their original file.

Thus we have licensing, and more to the point, Digital Rights Management. Not to mimic print media. But to “mimic” the copyright law’s protection for creators. To extend the reach of that protection into a new medium. Thus, when a library buys an ebook, they are buying a single physical instance of that ebook. The library should be able do what it likes with it, but the DRM prevents the file from being disseminated in such a way as to subvert the creator’s ability to be rewarded financially for the creation. The file is not disembodied “information,” out there in the world like sunlight, belonging to everyone.

I don’t see that as a problem, or the management of a problem. It’s just right way to do things. (I’m not defending the current law’s unconscionably long term of protection.)

It is of course annoying, when you know that other files may be spewed far and wide freely, that DRM files restrict that freedom. Perhaps for some of us it is also annoying that we can’t just walk into Wal-Mart and take out anything we want without paying for it. Pirates and hackers will always be with us, just as book thieves are constant visitors to bookstores. But Amazon is doing very well despite the cleverness of criminals. The practice of paying for things is something that most of us have learned to live with. And we’ll have to learn to live with DRM too.

Unless…creators find that a Creative Commons kind of arrangement, where they can set the terms of distribution, is best for all concerned. Personally, for my own work, I prefer this method. Here we have a paradigm shift worthy of consideration. But when corporations are the publishers and distributors, the need for quarterly profit-maximizing makes DRM the policy of choice.

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