Do we as consumers ever really own the digital stuff — books, music, etc. — that we think we’re buying?
It’s a provocative question explored in an article Thursday by the WSJ’s Geoffrey Fowler. The issue came up last week when Amazon.com reached into customers’ Kindle e-readers and deleted some e-books written — ironically — by George Orwell. Amazon, which returned the cost of the e-books, said it made the move when it realized that the publisher didn’t have the proper rights to sell the books in the U.S. ...
... according to Fowler, the incident raises some difficult questions about what it means to “own” books in the digital age. Some experts are saying that these matters might best be remedied by passing new laws that clearly define digital ownership.
“What this incident shows is that the law gives radically more control to the company than the system ought to,” says Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig.
Thing is, writes Fowler, owning an e-book is more akin to licensing a piece of software than it is to owning a bound volume: access comes with fine-print terms of service, and often digital rights management software to ensure that you abide by the rules. ...
Another difference: Real books can be shared with a friend or sold, but e-books with digital rights management software cannot. The number of devices that can play a single e-book license varies from one publisher to the next, and often confuses consumers.
Looking at the problem from the perspective of an author who royalties are a very large percentage of his annual income and an avid Kindle user, I'm totally okay with the the differences between real books and e-books. As it is, the used book market takes a huge chunk out of my annual royalties. The drop off from the first year of a new edition to the second can be as high as 30%, for example.