E-books, DRM, and the Problem of “Owning”

An article at Ars Technica asks an interesting question: why is DRM still tolerated on e-books when it’s been killed in regards to music?
The reasons given boil down to two things: with the ubiquity of cross-platform apps like Amazon’s Kindle app, folks can already read their DRM-locked books on multiple devices, whereas for music there was a real consumer demand for this kind of freedom. Also, there’s no remix culture to speak of with books like there is with music.

The remaining sticking point, really, is the lack of an ability to borrow and lend books (this is technically somewhat possible on the Kindle and Nook platforms, but just barely). In a world in which e-books are the dominant reading medium, I have to wonder if that’s not something we just wind up letting go of.

Really, I bet a lot of what we think of as part of “books” will fade away, specifically the very idea of owning a book. Without books as physical objects, it’s no longer possible to have them as home decor, as trophies. The book-as-object is gone, so actually owning the electronic file that is an e-book becomes a less compelling idea. The only reason you’d want to “own” it, then, would be to have the freedom to reread or reference it at any time in the future. (This is assuming DRM remains and lending it out is not possible, or mostly pointless.)

That points to a kind of Netflix or Spotify model, in which you’re paying a regular fee for access to e-book content, without ever owning any of it. The hangup would be how one could retain things like notes and marginalia if one discontinues a subscription to a given e-book service. Perhaps, then, one can always retain those personal notes and whatever they immediately reference without having access to the entire work. But I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s an interesting gray area in electronic media. I find it fascinating how we seem, as a culture, to have settled on models for music and video that we’re all more or less happy with (save for cable, which is essentially the Anti-christ), but books seem to remain in a muddle. No doubt, this is in large part due to the fact that a book is really just text, like any part of the web, but just a lot of it. It’s so simple: many words — not musical notes, not sounds, not images, not bits — packaged together. Take them off of paper and put them on a screen, and suddenly we don’t know how the hell we’re supposed to sell or possess them.

18 thoughts on “E-books, DRM, and the Problem of “Owning””

  1. That points to a kind of Netflix or Spotify model, in which you’re paying a regular fee for access to e-book content, without ever owning any of it.

    Why? Right now, we already have public libraries paid for via taxes that allow every resident to have access to e-books without ownership.


    1. I don’t know what your access is, but wherever I’ve lived, library access to ebooks is shockingly limited. The selection is sparse to laughable, getting them onto the device is often confounding, and besides that, the publishers are fighting library access to their material with all they have.


  2. I have so much difficulty reading books on tablet/phone/computer monitors. I’ll always prefer hardcovers to e’s.
    I’ll also say that DRM is a pointless exercise anyway. Regardless of what type of media you’re talking about, someone will always have the DRM cracked on the day the work is released. When are they going to learn that all the DRM does is push more people away from buying legitimate copies of their work?


  3. I will always and only ever read physical books, not e-books. E-books only exist to sell a gadget-obsessed culture another gadget. Someone who loves reading more than they love gadgets will never give up the collecting of books just because the developers of gadgets who want their money tell them to.


    1. Ebooks are especially useful when you travel. You can store hundreds of books in a single E-book reader. Ones with E-ink technology are easy on the eyes and give weeks of use on a single battery charge.
      You can download books from the most remote locations in non English speaking countries, and many books are available free.


    2. Yeah, no. The value of e-books is being able to store and transport gorillions of them when otherwise you’d only be able to transport, like one. Or even none at all. Additionally, it’s an inherently superior medium for reference material, since being able to type in whatever you’re searching for and just go straight to it is much, much quicker than referencing indexes and hunting down the right page in a physical book.


  4. Or, a simple response to the question: “It isn’t”.
    Just about everyone I know that owns an ebook reader refuses to read anything other than DRM free books. This is because the worst nightmares of DRM – ie unannounced sudden revocation of one’s purchased rights to use the material – have already happened, many times, on every DRM locked ebook reader.
    YMMV, of course, but that’s my experience.


  5. Until they actually stop printing physical books, it’s too soon to announce the death of them. The sales of vinyl records is in resurgence because a growing number of people find they prefer the sound of vinyl to compressed mp3s. While it’s silly on the surface to compare different kinds of books to different ways of listening to music, there are always people who talk about the experience of reading books – the feel of them, the smell of them. Being able to lend them out, not ever having to worry about batteries, not needing to send them back to the manufacturer to get the batteries replace only to find out you can no longer access some of the stuff you’ve saved.
    The whole battery thing is what’s keeping me from getting an e-book reader, and even if I eventually do get one, it won’t stop me from buying real books.


  6. Tabby Lavalamp:

    The sales of vinyl records is in resurgence because a growing number of people find they prefer the sound of vinyl to compressed mp3s.

    Well if it’s really sound they’re after, there are plenty of plugins that can distort an MP3 into sounding like vinyl (adding the appropriate noise, distortion, and compression). I think it’s more a matter of the process of playing the music. Even moreso than with e-books, e-music is very commodified. A friend of mine, who is a fantastic Front of House mixer but only 22 years old, told me how he only got into the Beatles after listening on vinyl. When it’s on your computer, if you don’t like the song after 10 seconds, it’s easy to skip to the next one. With vinyl it’s a whole process of handling and cleaning and starting the record, and skipping to the next song is time-consuming enough that you mostly just let it play. Then you find out how much you like the bridge, and how the structure of the song makes that intro you didn’t like make sense.
    It’s not as big a difference with e-books vs real books, but there’s something similar there.


  7. Excuse the length of this:
    DRM is utterly obscene. When books were paper and music was on vinyl or tape, it was a given that the purchaser owned that copy and had unlimited use as long as it wasn’t damaged or destroyed, and that the purchase could move the music from one device to another (e.g. a cassette played in both a tape deck and a walkman). But that’s not so with DRM. It’s a leash controlled by a distant corporation which – without warning – can cut off the consumer from things paid for in good faith. Amazon has done this to numerous people. It’s called the “kindle” because people who buy it get burnt.
    The public never volutarily agreed to how corporations changed the agreement. People buy DRM-tainted books (and bought DRM-tainted music) with the naive assumption that corporations weren’t going to screw them, which the corporations then do (and did). There are plenty of instances of people who paid for music and ebooks in good faith, only to be locked out and prevented from using things which they paid for. They thought it was a purchase, but it turned out to be a lease, which I doubt they would have paid for had they known.
    I adamantly refuse to buy anything that I cannot move from one device to another, and I would suggest others do the same. My music is in MP3 on a hard drive which I can copy onto an MP3 player or delete from the player when I need room. (If anyone reading is a FLAC proselytizer, don’t say it. It’s not germane to the discussion. Yes, some people do that.) Am I violating the legal letter of the law by making copies on multiple devices? Perhaps, but I’m not breaking the spirit of the law – I’m the only one who listens to it, and I’m not distributing the music for free or for money.
    The same goes for ebooks. I buy ebooks only in PDF format sans DRM. I have a main copy on my home computer, and may have a copy on my phone or netbook. I may not be using them by the letter of the agreement, but the books were paid for and only one copy is ever in use as one time by me and no one else. It’s no different than if I deleted it from my hard drive after copying it to the phone, then doing the reverse when putting it back.
    People should have the freedom and the right to copy (to archive) and protect that which they paid for in good faith. As long as there is no distribution of ebooks, music and software (neither for free or for profit), it should be legal to copy for personal use. An existing law (in the US, anyway), the Audio Home Recording Act, says the copying of music onto cassette and digital forms (including archiving) is legal for personal use only. One could make a strong case that the same should apply to ebooks and software (which I believe has already been done).
    Regarding the “books or ebooks?” debate, what debate? They both have strengths and weaknesses, both have positives and negatives. I would prefer to have only printed books, but choose ebooks out of necessity (space at home and weight when moving), or because they’re quicker to use (e.g. a searchable quick reference like a bilingual dictionary or PDA encyclopedia). Paper feels warm, reading a page is easier on the eyes, and it doesn’t require batteries or recharging.
    And as for PF’s original point “Do we really need to own books now?”, I might agree if online access were reliable everywhere and a stable cost of access were guaranteed. But given that the attitude of some/many/most corporations is “If we can rip off people, we will,” I’m not willing to trust them (re: netflix doubling its prices once it toppled blockbuster). I prefer to have my own copies (print or digital) outside their control.


  8. I love books – the smell, the feel, the heft. And my spouse (a librarian) also does.
    We have shelves full of books, highly valued, and selected carefully.
    We also both have e-readers. We travel a good deal, and the e-readers allow us to take many books – up to thirty or forty – with us on trips, when we might have been able to carry two or three before. Is it as good as a ‘real’ book? Well, yes; tapping the screen to turn a page is sufficiently similar to turning a page that it works.
    We borrow books from the library using Overdrive, or get books from Gutenberg etc. If I said it was perfect, and that the selection was not wanting, I’d be lying. But there’s a lot of DRM-free content out there. A lot of book publishers have started putting out DRM-free books (and rather piously noting their virtue in so doing at the front end of the book) , and those are the bulk of the books we purchase – because a DRM-free book is, despite its relative insubstantiability (is that a word?) more ‘ownable’ than an encrypted book.
    All of the books we have are in either Amazon’s proprietary format or epub format. PDFs really don’t work well on most black-and-white e-readers, as the text doesn’t reflow well…..
    I suspect that in future we’ll see fewer books published via publishing houses, just as we see fewer recordings released on major labels, because artists need the immediacy and slightly increased percentage of return that they can get from selling directly vs receiving a percentage from the publisher. I have friends with their own small press; it’s basically a website with a virtual storefront. They do have some copies in (mostly independent) retail bookstores, but most of their trade is online – and they sell both physical and e-books. Physical books have a relatively fixed rate of return per copy, and the ebooks are clearly being shared, but they make money on both – the cost into an ebook (once the text is fixed) is about four or five hours of editing in Sigil, which is expensive but recoupable over time.


  9. Like hackerguitar, I like the physical convenience of ebooks, especially for traveling (though I still have several thousand dead tree books in my house). Recently, I was surprised and dismayed to discover that an e-book I purchased for $40 as a somewhat cheaper alternative to paper (for a college class I was taking) really only gave me a *license* to use the book for 180 days.


  10. Really, I bet a lot of what we think of as part of “books” will fade away, specifically the very idea of owning a book. Without books as physical objects, it’s no longer possible to have them as home decor, as trophies. The book-as-object is gone…

    I am in the midst of organizing/downsizing my books, and I have whittled down my A-list authors to 43 and 579 books. Oh, wait! How could I have left Poe in the B-list? So, that’s 44 authors plus however many EAP books I have…
    I plan to get an e-reader for the tons of books I read once and give away, and for tomes like George RR Martin which are impossible to read comfortably in bed. I just can’t decide which one to get. My usual problem with technology. I can’t imagine not having physical books in my house.

    Well if it’s really sound they’re after, there are plenty of plugins that can distort an MP3 into sounding like vinyl (adding the appropriate noise, distortion, and compression).

    Ah, how little you know about vinyl!


  11. Ah, how little you know about vinyl!

    You think so, eh? I will bet you as much money as you care to wager that if you record your most favoritest vinyl with a halfway decent A/D converter (Firestudio Project will do), and encode to 160kbps or higher MP3 with any decent encoder (the Apple-provided one will do), you will be unable to tell the difference between them by sound alone.
    Have you ever seen what a sine wave looks like after being pressed onto an LP? I didn’t think so.


  12. I like e-books for the convience and easier storage.
    My concern about e-books is that they aren’t permanent. If I buy a paper book, it is mine. If I buy a digital book, it is whatever the publisher says it is. What I’m afraid of is editing down the line. George Lucas reedited Star Wars many years after the movie first came out. If I buy a copy of the movie now it is not the same movie I watched when I was 16.
    E-books can do the same thing. Let’s say I buy the book, The Lord of the Flies. A Grandchild of the original writer is now the copywrite holder. He/she is a born again Christian and completely re-writes the book so that all the chartacters do is sit around praying to Jesus all day. This is now the only authorized version. With DRM, the publisher can change the copy of the book I purchased 10 years ago to the new version without consulting me. Its the classic 1984 situation.


  13. I prefer e-books almost entirely because mucking about with actual pages is inconvenient. An e-book will never accidentally flop closed and require that I hunt down the page I was on. If I want to search for something specific, I just put it in the search bar and there it is.
    This is probably a bigger deal to me because I primarily read fucking massive books.
    I also don’t use an actual e-reader, so much as just read books on my laptop.


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