Dad-Splaining: The Problem With Ebooks.


One of these things is not like the other...
One of these things is not like the other…

This is the first installment of what I hope will be a recurring segment on this blog: Dad-Splaining. “Dad-Splaining,” in this case, is not like Mansplaining. It’s an attempt for me to figure out how to explain things in an accurate and succinct way, on a number of subjects, to my dad. Dad is one of the most intelligent people I know, and he is regularly able to find the gaps in an argument, or your thinking or knowledge, or an explanation and cut to the heart of things. And I typically have a lot of gaps in my argument. At least when I’m talking to him. Because dads and sons, y’all.

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to explain to my dad about some of the problems libraries run into when dealing with ebooks. We talked about Penguin removing their books from Overdrive, and I tried to get into issues of Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the ways that can muck with libraries serving their communities, when Dad brought up the point that inevitably gets brought up: that controlling who buys a book and under what circumstances is stupid. If I he wanted to buy a print book, all he would have to do is to walk into a bookstore or a garage sale and get it. He wouldn’t have to worry about it disappearing under his nose, and he certainly wouldn’t have to worry about which bookstore to shop at for fear that they had been found guilty of price-fixing.

“If I buy a book, it’s mine,” Dad said. “Why should an ebook be any different?” He has a fair point. Telling somebody that they can’t buy a book, they can only license it, is not just counter-intuitive. It feels plain wrong.

The problem lies in what we think we’re buying when we buy a book. Let’s say I want to pick up the latest novel by, say, Joe Hill. I go to Powell’s Books, or Barnes & Noble, or another bookstore, I grab the book off of the shelf, I take it to the cashier, give them my gigantic wad of disposable cash modest spending money for the week, and it’s mine to take home. But what am I actually buying? I’m not buying the story. The story is an idea. It has no physical substance. If it doesn’t have physical substance, then it can’t be bought or sold. The idea, however, is embodied by words in a work of authorship. Once that idea is cemented in an authored work, that work becomes the property of the author. This applies as soon as the words are set down by a writer. This concept is codified in U. S. Copyright Law.

So are we buying the words, or the work? Clearly not. That belongs to the author: in this case Joe Hill, or any other author whose novel we care to buy. When a person plagiarizes, what they’re really doing is committing an act of theft. They are taking the words that belong to someone else and using and presenting them as their own for profit, monetary or otherwise. One might then ask, “Well if that’s so, then how can a publisher print so many books with words that aren’t theirs?” They can do it, because the author grants them a license to do it in a contract that typically includes an up-front price for the license, royalties from future sales, and an advance on those royalties. The ownership of the work resides with the author, and the author grants permission to the publisher to reproduce the work in a partnership that hopefully benefits both parties. This is how authors can make a living doing what they do.

This is obviously a big generalization about how things like this work. The point of it is that when you buy a book, you’re not buying the content inside of it. Text is different from content. You can, and do, buy tracts of text all the time. Content is not so easily bought or sold, and as this new age of access has taught us, information is slippery. Once it’s free in the world, it goes wherever there are people to consume it. What you’re buying is the package: the cover, the pages, the printed text, and that nice dust cover with the pretty illustrations on it.

Making sure authors get paid for their work demands that the law create a set of rules that recognize rights of authorship. It is precisely these rules that protect content rights-holders, whether they be authors or the companies they might sell their rights over to (yes, you can do that), as well as the slippery nature of content and information, that make ebooks so tricky to deal with for everybody. If, when you buy a book, what you’re buying is the package, then what happens when the package is itself a piece of writing?

That’s right: the package that holds an ebook is not physical. It’s not your Kindle, or your Kobe, or your Nook or even your iPad; it’s the programming code that holds the content together as a coherent piece. And code has to be authored by somebody. Therefore, when you pay for an ebook, you still pay for an information package, but that package is, itself, an authored work, and in order to use it, you can’t buy it. You have to license it.

This places the control of how you use it in the hands of the rights-holders of the information package, which is, in the case of ebooks, a company. Companies and corporations are not people, but they do act like living things in certain ways. One of those ways is in their purpose: to survive, to thrive, and to make sure they continue to do so. One major way companies do this is through the movement of money. When a company asserts its digital rights by restricting and curtailing access to ebooks, whether to individual consumers or to larger entities like libraries, what they’re doing is protecting their vital interests, and their main interest is money, because that’s how companies maintain their survival and grow. And that isn’t going to change anytime soon. And, fortunately or unfortunately, they have a right to protect their interests, because their interests are those of the people who run them and, hopefully, also of the people work for them; though in certain cases, that second claim is doubtful.

None of which makes it right for companies to restrict access to information. All it means is that they are protected by law, and that their reasons for doing what they do are understandable, regardless of whether they stifle innovation and prevent people from accessing information in the formats they need and want. This makes the whole issue, in a word, thorny.

My dad didn’t quite see the complexity of it, because I wasn’t so great at explaining it to him. His response is to say, “They should just make it so that if you buy a book, you buy it. That would simplify everything for everybody.” And he’s right. It would. One might argue that by simplifying matters, you could still assure a profit for companies and give people what they want – though I’m not confident enough to argue that point. But under current U. S. law, that can’t happen, because as far as I can tell, there’s nothing differentiating a coded software application from a novel in terms of authorship and rights-holding. And in my opinion, as long as that’s the case, we can’t even begin to untangle this mess.

So, how did I do Dad-Splaining this issue? Did I get it right? Wrong? Did I miss anything? Please leave a comment below and let me know.

2 thoughts on “Dad-Splaining: The Problem With Ebooks.”

  1. Patrick – you refreshingly echoed Alan Watts when he said “the common error … is to mistake the symbol for the reality, to look at the finger pointing the way, and suck it for comfort rather than follow it.” Let me know if you will be attending Waves, it would be great to catch up after 10 yrs.

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