The rights and wrongs of digital books

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Amazon Kindle, Getty
Image caption,
Buy an e-book and all you get is a licence to look, says Bill Thompson.

Reading on screen has to get more like reading a book, says Bill Thompson

The recent rapid growth of the market for electronic editions of contemporary fiction, with some titles selling more in digital marketplaces than they do in printed form, seems unlikely to tail off. The latter part of 2010 may mark the point from which future historians date the transition to screen-based reading for literary fiction as well as reference works.

Page turner

Everyone involved in the book trade, as we will probably continue to call it for some years, is trying to decide how to respond to this change and anticipate the imminent arrival of the sort of creative destruction that has swept through the music industry, but few seem to have many good ideas.

Independent publishers like Faber & Faber and Canongate, both of whom I spend time talking to about the impact of digital publishing (though not for money), are trying hard to remain relevant, and initiatives like the new electronic publishing service, Faber Factory, are a sign that they understand the changing market.

However, even they are not yet willing to accept that the price of electronic texts is too high, and that readers will not pay the same for a bunch of bits as they will for a bound book, since the market knows that it costs less to send electrons over a network than it does to buy paper, make books out of it and ship the physical objects around the world.

They also seem unprepared for the fundamental shift in the whole basis of their business that digital distribution brings about.

Something important happens when the text of a book is peeled away from the physical book, exposing the important distinction between the law as it applies to property and copyright law, and this has significant implications for how publishers make money - or even whether they will do so at all.

When you buy a book you take ownership of the wood pulp, ink and glue that makes up the object, and anyone taking it away from you without permission is stealing. But you do not own, and never have owned, the copyright.

If the author is still alive or died fewer than 70 years ago then that list of words and punctuation, in that precise order, may be protected in various ways, limiting your ability to reproduce some or all of the list.

When you buy an digital copy to read on your e-book reader, phone or laptop all you get is the copyrighted bit, and what you pay for is a licence to have a copy or copies of the text.

You don't "own" an object - all you have is an agreement, and the things you can do with it are limited both by copyright law and by the terms of the legal licence agreement you enter into when you make your purchase.

Kindle and iPad users are acutely aware of this, because the digital rights management system used to limit copying of purchased e-books makes it impossible to share one with a friend in the way that we are all accustomed to do with physical books, while the licence makes it impossible to sell our second-hand e-books to others and defray the cost of new purchases.

Lending list

Amazon recently announced that it will let Kindle owners "lend" books, but only for two weeks and only once per title. It clearly expects to get a lot of positive publicity for following the approach of other e-book readers like the Barnes and Noble "Nook", but all they have done is to highlight exactly what we are giving up as we move from buying books to licensing content for our digital devices.

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Limits on lending rights could hit libraries

Perhaps the worst thing about the new feature is that Amazon will give publishers a veto over sharing their titles. For a company with a reputation for pushing publishers into distribution deals that they find very difficult to work with, Amazon seems very wary of doing anything that might upset the rights holders.

When the new Kindle shipped with a feature that let it read texts aloud in a synthesised voice it only took a few angry huffs and puffs from the US Author's Guild before the facility was made optional, to be turned off at the behest of the publisher.

And now Amazon is careful to announce the publisher-friendly aspects of its new feature, highlighting the fact that when you pay your money for a Kindle edition you aren't buying a book, and you certainly aren't buying an e-book that is in any way equivalent to a printed codex.

I'd be happy with a system that let me transfer my purchases rather than sharing them - I don't expect my one download of a copy of the new Jonathan Frantzen to provide for the reading needs of my entire extended family at the same time, but lending my Kindle - or in this case my iPad - means lending every book (and every other app), which is not the same as just lending one book.

There is one bright spot in all this, though. Amazon's business model offers us the clearest possible demonstration that we should not allow the law to treat the products of creative expression in the same way as we do physical property.

The idea of "intellectual property" deliberately conflates the two and allows politicians to pretend that laws about physical property should extend to digital downloads. We need to challenge this unjustifiable elision if we are to think seriously about copyright and business models in the age of electronics.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.

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