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Home :: Copyright Law

14 May 2010

What are e-books worth? (Part II) Copyright Law

In our last installment we learned that most of the cost of a paper book is in spent the editorial process, not the physical printing and binding, so even though e-books cost nothing to produce physically, the cost to the publisher is nearly the same, so they can't afford to sell them for much less than paper books.

Today we'll look at the reasons that, even though they have some undeniable advantages, e-books are worth a lot less to book buyers than paper books. Assuming you already have a reading device like a Kindle, an iPad, or a Sony reader, you can store hundreds of e-books in it. In some cases you can share the books, along with your bookmarks and notes between devices, e.g., a Kindle and an iTouch or Blackberry running the Kindle app. The problem is that the "book" you buy to read on your device is not really a book, it's what publishers wish books were.

When you buy, say, a toaster, you pay your money, you get your toaster, and for the most part the toaster maker doesn't care what you do with it. If you look at it and build your another toaster, they don't care (give or take patents which would be unlikely unless it were an awfully high tech model.) When you buy a paper book, you can do what you want with the physical book, but in many cases you can't make a copy of it due to copyright law. The history of US copyright has been a slow but consistent increase in the rights reserved to authors and publishers, and decrease in the rights of buyers and readers. America's first best-seller Uncle Tom's Cabin went into the public domain only 42 years after publication, and its copyright coverage was very limited, and did not cover plays and other adaptations, of which there were many, without the permission of the author.

These days, copyright has grown to last over 100 years and covers just about any imaginable version of the work, from an audio-book to interpretive dance. Publishers and authors (of whom I am one) often have an unwarranted assumption that they own every possible aspect of a work, including the ones that copyright law still excludes.

One of the most obvious and important differences between a paper book and an e-book is the ease of copying. In principle, you could put a paper book on a copying machine and make a complete copy of the whole thing, or large parts of it. In practice, almost nobody does so, because it's a pain, a bunch of stapled photocopies is not as good as a bound book, and the cost of copying is usually not a lot less than buying another copy. Other than a few cases about course packs for college courses, paper copying isn't an issue. With e-books, on the other hand, it is trivially easy to make copies, and the copies are identical in every way to the original, so copying is a big problem. The publishers' response has been DRM, tying each copy they sell to a buyer's account. The details of what the buyer can do with the copies varies from vendor to another, but typically they can read it on the vendor's own device, on smart phones that run an app from the vendor, and perhaps a few other places. B&N, for example, lets you lend each book you buy to one other person for a week, only one time.

This brings us to the fundamental inferiority of e-books relative to paper books. For paper books, the first sale rule means that once you've bought a book, the publisher has no further control over it, beyond the copyright copying limits. You can lend it, you can give it away, you can sell it, you can snip out the pages and sell them separately (not unknown with art books) or you can wrap fish with them. You can't do any of those with e-books, because you don't actually own anything other than an entry in the vendor's DRM database. This became painfully clear when, in a supremely ironic move, Amazon discovered that an e-book edition of Orwell's 1984 they'd been selling wasn't legal, and all copies of it disappeared from customers' Kindles. With paper books, the copyright owner could stop further sales and sue Amazon for damages, but they can't unprint and unsell an unbook. (Amazon says they won't do that again, but only because of the bad publicity, not because they can't.)

What you buy with an e-book is not really a book, but a publisher's fantasy of what a book would be if they could rewrite copyright law to be entirely in their favor. Publishers hate the used book business, and wish that people couldn't resell books. Poof! There's no used e-book business. (Technically there's no reason why there couldn't be, but the publishers and vendors would have to cooperate to allow one person to transfer a book's DRM token to another.) Publishers hate greymarket books, a cheap edition published in one country sold in another. Poof! DRM means you can't buy e-books if you're in the wrong country, and you can't even read the books you have bought if your device thinks, based on the network it's connected to, that it's in a country the publisher doesn't like. I don't expect Amazon and B&N will still be around 100 years from now, but you can be sure that if they are, the DRM on e-books will not go away when the copyright expires. Amazon does other creepy stuff like taking the electronic marginal notes people write using their Kindle, and publishing them, allegedly aggregated enough that you can't identify individuals, but eeurgh, at least ask before you do it.

So my advice to publishers is simple: don't be greedy. If they have to price e-books close to the price of paper books, which they do, make the e-books as good as paper books. If people can lend, donate, and resell paper books, make it easy to lend, donate, and resell e-books. If people can take their paper books on vacation to Australia, make sure their e-books will work there, too. And make e-books books stable and private like paper books, and don't repurpose our notes or anything else without getting explicit permission first.

I wish I thought that publishers were smart enough to figure this out, or at least to listen to advice. But I'm not holding my breath.

  posted at: 01:22 :: permanent link to this entry :: 0 comments
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