Monday, August 17, 2009
Who Owns an Electronic Book?
Amazon.com electronically deleted copies of Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm from Kindles, even though those copies had been legitimately purchased by readers. There's irony for you: George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four was deleted by Amazon without the knowledge or permission of the Kindle owners. Did you know Amazon could sneak onto your Kindle and erase what you have stored there? Me either.
Who owns an electronic book? When we purchase and download an ebook, are we buying the actual file, like we would a paper book, or are we leasing that file? Is it ours, or does it still belong to the publisher? Amazon's actions seem to say that we are merely borrowing the book for an extended amount of time but they can take the book back any time they want. And if we loan that ebook to someone else, or give it to a friend, we're violating our lease agreement.
These are the same questions the music industry has been struggling with for ten years. Music companies have responded by trying to lock down music files so they cannot be shared or passed from one computer to another. But they haven't been able to stop the proliferation of pirated music. Music companies aren't just fighting internet piracy, they are battling ideology. Millennium kids believe that music should be shared, period. They don't believe uploading songs to Pirate Bay is stealing. The harder the music industry tries to crack down on piracy, the more people resent the control placed on how and when their music is played.
The book industry is starting to deal with these same issues. Ebooks are popping up on pirate sites alongside bootlegged songs. As a publisher, I am forced to evaluate my own ideas of fair use and ownership. How much do I want to control the way the books I publish are read? How much am I willing to give away? Can I give away books and stay in business? Is there any way to stop people from uploading copies of my books for thousands of people to download for free? Should I care?
Amazon went too far and is now being sued for deleting those Kindle books. CEO Jeff Bezos apologized for the company's actions, saying "Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles."
But the reason Amazon.com decided to erase those files from Kindles in the first place is because those copies of Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm were illegal. The "publisher" uploaded those files via Amazon's third party distribution system and did not have the right to sell them. When Amazon found out, it deleted the files, then took the extra step of deleting them from Kindles.
Which is why I'm asking the question, "Who owns an ebook?" I understand the need for Amazon to shut down the illegal ebooks on their site, but do they also have the right to sneak onto your Kindle and delete what they want, without your knowledge or permission?