The many troubles with e-books

Last Updated on October 11, 2019 by Dave Farquhar

A brief essay by free software pioneer Richard Stallman on the problems with e-books made the front page of Slashdot today. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from Stallman. I found myself vigorously agreeing with parts of it, and vigorously disagreeing with other parts of it.

But mainly I found myself disappointed that he didn’t really elaborate much. Maybe it’s because he covered similar ground once before in his 1997 dystopian 1984-ish short story, The Right to Read.

And, to me, that’s the problem. We’re on a slippery slope. Today it sounds ridiculous that it could be illegal to loan your laptop or your e-reader or your tablet to someone else. But prior to 2009, the idea that you could buy a book and then at some point the party that sold it to you could take it back from you without permission sounded ridiculous.

And yes, that’s happened. In 2009, purchasers of (ironically) George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm woke up one morning and found that Amazon had removed the books from their Kindles. It turned out the publisher didn’t have authorization to issue those two titles as e-books, so Amazon removed them and refunded the subscribers’ money. Fair enough, except those who’d bought the books for class and had taken notes lost their notes and didn’t have any way to get them back. They could repurchase authorized editions, but their notes were gone.

In the physical world when something like this happens with real property, the rightsholder sues the party that violated their rights and the violator pays damages. Meanwhile, the people who bought the unauthorized books don’t lose anything. They bought their books in good faith, so they get to keep them.

Amazon promised not to do this again. And so far they haven’t, but since the capability is there and has been demonstrated to exist, what happens if someone demands it in a lawsuit, and a technologically illiterate judge signs off on it?

I’m a GenXer who works in the technology field. I’ve been using computers since 1982, and I’ve owned a computer since 1984. I should be all over this. And I would love to have an e-reader with search capability and a bunch of technical books loaded in it. Then I could carry my library with me at all times, and in minutes I could pull up all the relevant content I’ve ever purchased about a particular problem I’m dealing with at that moment.

I should have every reason to dive in. But I have six concerns holding me back, and to this day, nobody has addressed them:

  • Terms of service can change at any time.
  • It could become illegal to let anyone else look at your e-reader, since it contains books that person didn’t pay for.
  • A publisher could decide that you purchasing the book initially wasn’t enough and could demand a fee each time you pull up the book on your reader.
  • The company that sold you your e-books decides what devices you can use to read them.
  • If the company that sold you your e-reader and e-books goes out of business, your e-books could disappear.

And I agree with Stallman that the status quo is designed to benefit corporations, and nobody is looking out for the rights of the people who bought the content.

The problem is that Stallman doesn’t address these concerns. Instead he jumps straight to a non-starter solution: Make e-books free, collect tax money, and dole the money out to the authors based on popularity. This is a society that struggles to build more buses and trains because a vocal segment of the population thinks public transportation is socialism. Let alone that everyone I’ve ever talked to–until I explained the royalty system on books–thinks all writers are rich. Creating a socialist microcosm for authors isn’t a solution 51% of Congress, let alone the populace, is going to accept.

Is the problem capitalism, or is the problem that the agreements are too one-sided? Perhaps Stallman thinks the problem is capitalism. I think the problem is that consumer rights are eroding and by the time anyone realizes it, it’s too late to change. Publishers managed to stay in business for centuries with consumers having the right to retain their books come what may, being able to buy them once and read them as many times as they want, and being able to loan them out and even re-sell them.

So let’s look at those concerns with a little more depth, one at a time.

Terms of service can change at any time.

This practice started with computer software in the mid 1980s. You didn’t buy software; by walking into a computer store and buying a cardboard box with a disk in it, you were accepting a license. A license that you accepted before you even read it, just by tearing open the shrinkwrap. Over time, these licenses have become more and more one-sided, and today, they can change without your consent. I could have one set of rights when I make the purchase, and a more restricted set of rights when I come back to that book in a couple of years.

As an individual, if I rent out my house and the contract says the tenant agrees to mow the lawn before it reaches the height of 7 inches, I can’t come back a month later and change that to 6 inches. The terms of the contract are binding. A deal’s a deal.

But if I buy an e-book from a multibillion-dollar corporation, it can come back and change the terms at the whims of its CEO, board of directors, or shareholders. And for some reason, people think that’s OK. Most of those same people would say it’s unreasonable for a landlord to go back and tell a tenant to keep the grass shorter. Why do they think it’s OK for companies to bully us just because they have billions of dollars?

It could become illegal to let anyone else look at your e-reader, since it contains books that person didn’t pay for.

I suppose one might argue that letting people read books without paying for them is un-American. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin, a printer by trade, founded what became the Philadelphia Public Library. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, educated himself by reading borrowed books that he couldn’t afford to purchase himself.

Publishers see people reading books without paying for them as a problem, and libraries and readers see the inability to borrow books as a problem. The conflict isn’t resolved yet, and given the changes in copyright law that have happened in my lifetime, I expect the ultimate solution will favor the publishers more than it favors readers.

A publisher could decide that you purchasing the book initially wasn’t enough and could demand a fee each time you pull up the book on your reader.

This is a more onerous extension of the first point. Let’s just say you bought an e-book for $25 in 2011. Then, in 2014 when you go back to read the book, the publisher demands you pay $1 first because they’ve decided that it’s more profitable to charge you each time you use the book rather than charge you a one-time fee up front. But since you don’t really own anything, nothing stops this from happening except goodwill. A deal’s a deal, unless one of the parties to the deal is a multibillion-dollar corporation.

The company that sold you your e-books decides what devices you can use to read them.

Right now, when you buy a Kindle or a Nook e-book, you can use the appropriate app to read those e-books on an Amazon Kindle, on your laptop, on a tablet computer, on your smartphone. People are understandably nervous about buying e-books, so giving them the ability to access a book anywhere they might have an electronic device with an Internet connection is an effective sales tactic. Right now, it would be suicide to do anything different.

But once people are used to buying e-books, or once they have no other choice because there are books they need that aren’t available in any other format, the consumer no longer holds the power. The distributor does.

And let’s just say in a few years, the creator of your e-reader decides to sign an exclusive agreement with Apple allowing those e-books to be read on Apple devices but nothing else. If you have a computer running Windows or a phone running Android, you can’t read that content on it anymore.

That would be suicide right now, but in 10 years, it could be good way for one vendor to gain an advantage over a competitor. What prevents it from happening?

If the company that sold you your e-reader and e-books goes out of business, your e-books could disappear.

Right now it’s inconceivable that Amazon would go out of business within our lifetimes. But companies can fall fast. In 1982, the sci-fi movie Blade Runner prominently displayed Atari advertisements all over the place, because at the time, Atari appeared to be the company most likely to dominate 2019. Atari went into a free fall in 1983 and never recovered. Today people are surprised Atari still exists in some form.

But I’m nervous about buying an e-reader from Amazon based on the 1984 fiasco.

Barnes & Noble is in a more precarious position than Amazon. The main thing Barnes & Noble has going for it is that its main competitor, Borders, is in worse shape than it is. The company is looking to sell itself, and is fighting off legal action from activist investor Ron Burkle. One of the points of contention is its e-book strategy. That makes me nervous about buying an e-book from Barnes & Noble.

The Kobo e-reader may be the safest choice from that standpoint since it’s allied with three different U.S. retailers (Borders, Best Buy and Wal-Mart). It’s entirely possible one or two of those partners could go away, but it’s not likely they all will. But it’s also likely this is the first you’ve heard of the device.

The reason the longevity of the vendor matters is that e-books have Digital Rights Management on them. If you’re unfamiliar with DRM, it’s like a key. Imagine your front door being locked, and you have to ask for a key in order to enter. Now imagine if the key’s caretaker disappears one day. With nobody to ask for the key, you can’t unlock the front door anymore. Crack the DRM and you don’t need the key, but then you’re a criminal.

I really want an e-book reader. But what I want even more is an e-book reader that acknowledges my rights as a consumer. I’ll keep looking.

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2 thoughts on “The many troubles with e-books

  • June 15, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Terms of service can change at any time.

    I wonder if the people who use facebook ever worry about this. We’ve just heard about facebook starting to use face recognition in the UK, something they never agreed to, and I’m amazed that nobody seems unduly concerned

    • June 23, 2011 at 8:42 am

      Sorry for the delay in replying. I think the United States is growing a little weary of Facebook’s changing terms of service, and suspect that may be part of the reason Facebook actually lost users in the last quarter. I also think part of it is college graduates closing their accounts to keep prospective employers from finding embarrassing pictures, but that ties into terms of service too.

      It seems like people either are completely unconcerned, or on the brink of leaving, with little middle ground. When I wrote up how to opt out of facial recognition, it was interesting to see which of my friends re-posted it.

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