Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ebook Licenses: Where Is The Outrage?

I remember when Andy Rooney started complaining about the shrinking one pound coffee can. Coffee makers kept selling their coffee in the same size can, but instead of giving consumers the 16 oz. of coffee they had come to expect, people got a coffee can with between 11 and 13 oz. of coffee. They also made the print which tells how much coffee the can contains smaller in the hopes nobody would notice.

Publishers and retailers are pulling a similar switch with ebooks and hoping that nobody will notice. When you buy an ebook you don’t actually buy it the same way you buy a print book. You buy a license to read it on a certain device, or number of devices. Most of these licenses do not give readers the legal right to share their ebooks, even though people have shared print books for as long as they have existed. As a librarian it bothers me that this basic feature of print books might disappear entirely as more people read ebooks over print books. While I understand the concerns publishers have about ebook piracy, the use of DRM and the criminalizing of sharing goes to far (at the same time it is not very effective). They would never get away with trying to restrict the sharing of print books, yet somehow they have convinced readers they don’t have the right to share ebooks.

Even though users pay a little bit less for an ebook than they would for a print book, publishers do not need to worry about costs associated with print books (printing, distribution, warehousing). So while it costs money to produce the content in an ebook, it costs almost nothing to produce the ebook file when compared with producing a print book. Despite this, publishers and retailers have created licenses for these ebooks that don’t allow sharing, even though this is not the case with print books which have a much smaller profit margin.

I know the argument a lot of people will make at this point. They will say that publishers will go out of business if everyone shares their ebooks. As a librarian I find this argument ridiculous on the face of it. Everyday I see people check out books printed by publishers that are still in business despite selling their books to libraries to be lent out. But as a librarian I know how publishers treat libraries, so I don’t doubt they believe this line. For instance, many of the licenses libraries acquire to lend ebooks through the Overdrive service cost the library more than they would cost the average consumer to buy the ebooks through a retailer (as much as 60% more). However, libraries generally acquire print books for prices lower than you would find them at a retail store. Publishers have seized this opportunity to squeeze more money out of everyone under the guise of stopping piracy and protecting their copyrighted material. They don’t like the idea of people sharing and would get rid of accepted forms of sharing if they could. The fact that all six major publishers in the US have backed SOPA/PIPA makes it clear they have no problem changing the rules to suit themselves even if it criminalizes
previously legal activity.

I aim my comments mostly at publishers. I think when it comes to sharing books authors have conflicting interests. They don’t want too many people to get their work without paying for it, even though they do appreciate it when anyone enjoys their work. At the same time, if they want to write new works they must also have access to a large number of books. In many cases this includes books that people have lent them, or they have borrowed from the library. Without the practice of lending many authors could not afford to have access to as many books and their work would reflect this. Cory Doctorow makes this point well and I recommend watching this lecture he gives on the subject of copyright.

What about piracy? I fully understand why publishers have resorted to these tactics. An unprotected file can quickly multiply and spread through a network making it freely available. However, it has become clear that these tactics don’t work and that they upset readers. DRM can be removed very easily and users resent the fact they can’t share ebooks when they have always shared print books. If publishers want to stop piracy they need to make the process of getting an ebook easier than torrenting one. They need to make it affordable enough that people feel they get their money’s worth when they buy an ebook. For a bit more on how this approach has already worked check out my blog about Louis CK and his experiment. Publishers also need to let people share ebooks the way they have always shared print books. I’m in the process of creating a social network that lets people share ebooks freely, but still treats authors and publisher fairly. You can read more about it on my Indiegogo campaign page. Please contribute and tell your friends if you would like a better way to share ebooks.

Here is a video from my campaign.