Saturday, March 12, 2011

on ebooks and ownership

Here's a philosophical question - Do I own the ebooks that I have purchased?

This question came to me after performing a mundane task - compiling my annual "What I Read This Year List." I was performing my recordkeeping in a Facebook service. The Facebook service included a datapoint whether the book was owned or borrowed. This was easy, as I bought books or borrowed them from a library. I didn't track this in my LibraryThing account because I felt strongly that LT was where I managed my personal library, and never made any notations about books that I'd borrowed.

Then, in fall 2010, I bought a Nook. I travel a lot, and I an a pretty speedy reader, so my trips often require that 3-6 books accompany me. As I was due to make a trip that would require 10 hour of travel time each way, bracketing a 5-day stay, I was looking at taking 8 books. This would have been at least 1/4 of my suitcase. So I researched and decided on a Nook because I could expand its memory, swap out batteries, load my own pdbs, epubs and pdfs, and use the cool "loan" feature to trade some title with other Nook owners (even though I only knew 1 such person at the time). Its eInk screen is very easy to read. I got to travel with clothes and leave room for souvenirs.

I still buy books. I love books. I still frequent public libraries. I cannot say enough about the quality of the Alexandria Public Library. But I cannot deny that I have bought more ebooks that print books over the past 8 months. At least one a week.

I first considered the concept of ownership when I attended a reading by William Gibson. I loved his most recent book, Zero History. I took a number of my older Gibson paperbacks with me for him to sign, as I hadn't been to one of his signings since 1984.

But not Zero History, because you can't get an ebook inscribed. That saddened me.

I had a related moment when I bought ebooks that the latest n two different series. I owned the others in paperback. This felt wrong, like I really owned the earlier ones but not these. I couldn't see them next to each other on my shelves. No one perusing my shelves would know I had them. But when I was reading the ebook I wanted to refer back to something in an earlier volume, which I did not have on the reader. Might I buy physical copies out of a sense of completeness and the ebook for mobile access and searchability?

Then, when I was updating my year-end reading list in Facebook, I found myself puzzling over the "owned" or "borrowed" column. Did I really own my ebooks?

In one sense I do. I have files on my Nook. I can access them using Adobe Digital Editions or the Nook PC App. I can preserve them to some extent. I have some sense of control over the files.

In the legal sense I do not. I have actually licensed the use of that file for use on one or more devices. The Nook legal notice says that I cannot "copy, transfer, sublicense, assign, rent, lease, lend, resell or in any way transfer any rights to, all or any portion of the Digital Content to any third party, except in connection with the normal use of the lending feature available through the Service, or as expressly permitted by the Terms of Use or applicable third-party license agreement." So, I can only lend using the Lend feature, and I can' resell my ebooks like I could sell my paperbacks.

I don't really own them. How confortable am I with that? Moderately, but not entirely. How much do I miss the physicality? It depends on the time of day. When I'm on the Metro hauling things to and from work, or rushing through an airport, I do not miss books at all. When I'm standing in front of my bookcases, I want to see all my books on those shelves, not on a device charging in my living room.

So, I'm conflicted. I suspect I will sometimes end up buying both.


kagoyahime said...

I'm a little tired to go on about it extensively, but basically I agree with you.

Lee Drake said...

This is a big difference between Ebooks and Emusic. With Emusic I can buy the CD, rip it to my player (legally) and (as long as I remove the files after I've done so) resell the CD to someone else. Now if I keep the files, that's illegal. But as long as I treat the files as a backup or another form of the CD I own I'm ok from a legal standpoint. Not so with an ebook - there's no real way to take the eBook version and make a backup to paper, or the paper version and back it up to ebook.

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