October 4, 2016

“Ownership” and other e-book fallacies

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free-ebook-imagePeople who talk about books with any regularity are seasoned in their responses to the question of whether or not they read digitally. Often, it’s the first thing you’re asked at a party when you tell someone that you work in publishing. Booksellers, too, deploy all-but-scripted responses to grumpy people who can’t possibly imagine what a bookstore is for in 2016. (These people exist, trust me.)

And it doesn’t really matter whether your answer offers your inquisitor restrained equanimity; this person, always, unfortunately, does have a point: books are heavy and take up space, while PDFs are weightless and invisible but for the hardware they live on.

Because my own response to such queries—that I like the feel of books, that digital reading only ever feels like skimming and is therefore an unrewarding waste of time—has always been unconvincing to me, I take some satisfaction in learning most of those who do read digitally are somewhat unclear on what “buying” an ebook really means. As it turns out, my rejoinder needn’t be any more elaborate than this: I like to own my books. I like to wake up and know for sure that, barring theft, they will be there.

Over at Quartz, Christopher Groskopf reports on how, in the age of the “sharing economy,” the concept of ownership (in the way that you own a print book when you purchase it) is in decline, and how companies are profiting on consumers’ ignorance of this fact. E-book consumers, when they click “buy” on Amazon or wherever, aren’t really buying anything; from a technical, legal standpoint, they are only paying a licensing fee to access a book’s contents.

This is to say that many of our assumptions about ownership do not apply to digital versions of books. Groskopf provides a simple test based on a study conducted by legal scholars Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Jay Hoofnagle. Groskopf’s test reveals that a majority of consumers are purchasing e-books under various false impressions.

The test challenges several consumer assumptions using the prompt “If I purchase this e-book…”

In all cases, the answer is “No.” You don’t own that book. You cannot copy it. You cannot resell it. You cannot give it to a friend! You cannot leave it to your children when you die! One day, you open your Kindle to resume reading Fahrenheit 451 and it’s just gone: yep, that’s basically fine. “Owning” an e-book, then, is very different than owning a hardcover or a paperback, which you are free to loan, bequeath, and sell off as you please.

Screenshot via Quartz

A large percentage of people have no idea what they can and cannot do with that thing they just bought

If these facts alone don’t shock you, the number of people to whom this is news to might — just have a look at that chart on the right. Groskopf writes:

Shoppers in Perzanowski and Hoofnagle’s study consistently overestimated what rights they would acquire to the digital media they purchased. The vast majority believed that they would be able to keep their ebook indefinitely and transfer it to any device they own. More than a third believed they would be able to lend it or gift it to a friend.

Like most survey respondents, you checked the box indicating that you would “own” the ebook. However, most TOS contracts explicitly state that content is “licensed, not sold” and thus remains the property of the seller. Apple, Amazon, and other ebook sellers say you are not allowed to do any of things listed above, except in very narrow cases such as temporarily lending a book to another Kindle owner.

Now, companies could probably educate consumers about this reality. But they don’t. Probably because no one wants to click a button that says “license now” or “rent until rights transfer to a new publisher.” Instead, they bury this information in Terms of Service agreement, which, it is well documented, not very many people read. But is this information unsavory? Need it be obscured? Groskopf himself is unsure:

Despite tremendous erosion of property rights, most consumers transitioning to digital media have so far avoided the pain of losing anything they really cared about. Few have had a favorite ebook deleted or been embroiled in a legal argument over their digital inheritance.

 The attitudes of young adults make ownership seem positively passé. Rates of homeownership are down, the “sharing economy” is up, and everything that can be streamed will be streamed. Perzanowski, an admitted pessimist, believes it is “…a real possibility that we are in the midst of a much deeper cultural shift away from ownership.”




Chad Felix is the Manager of Direct Sales and Library Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.

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