An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Buying eBooks vs "buying" eBooks

I’ve been thinking about asking Santa for an eReader for Christmas. Apparently, the main manufacturers have recently become aware that there is a place called Australia and *gasp* they read books there! As a result, we have a number of devices to choose from in the price range I’m interested in (AU$300 and below), including the new Sony Touch, the Kindle International version and the Kobo sold by Borders stores.

I have been thinking seriously about a Kindle, but there’s one intellectual property aspect that is giving me pause. You may have heard this story earlier in the year. To summarise, Kindle mistakenly made available a book to which it didn’t have the rights. It then withdrew it from the store and deleted it remotely from users’ devices. The funniest part? The book was George Orwell’s 1984.

So how could Amazon do this? Simple – when you buy an eBook for your Kindle, you’re not really buying the book (you didn’t expect Amazon to be restrained by logic and/or the dictionary, did you?). You’re actually licensing it under a fairly restrictive set of terms and conditions. It’s a model similar to the software world rather than the actual paper book world. And here comes the crunch, in my opinion.

Amazon is perfectly entitled to licence books rather than sell them, as do most of the other eBook publishers. They were entitled to remove Orwell’s book from users’ devices, and if I worked for them I would be thanking my lucky stars that they could use the licence terms to clean up the mess before they were sued for copyright infringement. This is the reason why eBook publishers choose the licence model, after all – it allows them to maintain a much greater degree of control over the things users can do with their eBooks. However, Amazon are so far the only company to unilaterally remove books that readers have purchased (sorry, "purchased"). This might be because the 3G connectibility of the Kindle makes this possible; I'm not sure whether the others would be able to do this in a technical sense.

The real issue in my view is that there is a lack of honesty about what readers are really buying. You don’t see a lot of advertising saying “License your eBook here!” Rather, Amazon’s store provides you with a picture of the book, a blurb and a link to buy the book. The Terms of Use state Unless otherwise specified, Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. I’d query whether the repeated use of “buy” on the site could even trigger this provision to mean that the content is sold. In any case, users are likely to assume unless specifically told otherwise that “purchasing” a book means that they have bought a copy which is then theirs to own. Technically, they could be vulnerable to action under the Trade Practices Act or equivalent US legislation for misrepresentations or false advertising.

If I was advising Amazon I’d be telling them to change the language in their advertising and to review their Terms of Use. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that Amazon’s attorneys are telling them just that, while the marketers refuse to have a bar of it (cynicism about marketers? Me?).

As a purchaser, it’s another reason pushing me towards the Sony and away from the Kindle, though I have some affection for a company that comes up with such great brand names. I mean, Amazon for an online bookstore? Kindle for an eBook reader? They may have licensing issues but they clearly listened to their trade mark attorneys.

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