Week 10: Ownership in the Digital World

When I was researching ereaders, before I got my Kobo, the question of ownership was a bit of a pressing matter to me. This was around the time that Amazon was coming under fire for deleting books off of a user’s Kindle without warning or consent. This was a possibility I had never considered before. My worries about ebooks skewed more toward corrupted files or computer crashes. I thought I could lose ebooks, much like physical books can be misplaced or destroyed, but I did not think that the company I bought them from could take them away.

An NBC article on the controversial action by Amazon clarified that when we think we are buying ebooks we are really licencing them (Johnson 2012).The “buy” button might more properly be labeled “rent” (Johnson 2012). This case motivated me to buy a Kobo rather than a Kindle. While Kobo probably operates in the same way, it has, to my knowledge, never abused its customers. I also wanted the freedom of a Kobo. It’s one of the most open ereaders out there (Neal 2013). As well as supporting multiple formats, with and without DRM, it can be used with the Toronto Public Library. TPL has been offering ebooks for years and is compatible with all major ereaders… except the Kindle.

This research brought me face to face with the contradictions inherent in this kind of digital content. While a huge draw to ebooks is that they are more convenient, their actual convenience depends on the platform or device you use. For instance, I recently learned that one of my favourite authors, Hal Duncan, has ebook versions of his works available. While the major ones are sold on Kobo’s online store, the one’s I want are only available on Amazon. He’s not very well known, so libraries don’t have these titles. I am barred from reading them in ebook form unless I buy them, legally, from Amazon and then break the law to convert them into a format I can read on a Kobo. This seems bizarre, as having bought something I would expect to be able to use it as I want.

Another weakness of ebooks is an inability to lend them to other people. If I read something I like I can’t just grab it off my shelf and force it into someone’s hands. I recently read an excellent series, The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. I first got them from the library, digitally, and then bought them from Kobo. They are fairly brick-shaped and it makes more sense to me to own them as virtual copies, especially since that’s how I first read them. But, I don’t recommend them to people that often because there is an enforced lack of follow through. I can’t facilitate their access to the books.

Ebooks thoroughly complicate the idea of book ownership. The problem is that ebook-sellers’ don’t address this up-front. They act like buying an ebook is the same as buying a physical book, even pricing them similarly. Yet, they expect to exert unprecedented power over these purchases.

Articles Referenced:

Johnson, Joel. 2012. “You don’t own your Kindle books, Amazon reminds customer.” NBC News, October 24. Accessed March 26, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/technolog/you-dont-own-your-kindle-books-amazon-reminds-customer-1c6626211
Neal, Meghan. 2013. “Do You Ever Own Your E-Books?” VICE, August 19. Accessed March 26, 2016. http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/do-you-ever-own-your-e-books

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