Why ebooks are licensed, not owned

I was following the #JAKonrath hashtag yesterday in his discussion on piracy and free books. And someone brought up a good point, one that many consumers know and have put them off from buying an e-reader like the Kindle. It is simple, to the point, and at the heart of many things happening in the digital world. I cannot find the exact quote, but most people have said this anyways. Well, I’m expanding it a bit, but here:

“I own a physical book. But all e-books are licensed for me to read them. And the Amazon FAIL, the 1984 fiasco, means that my books aren’t owned by me, and can be taken from me. They may have promised not to do it again, but the issue is the same: I don’t own what I buy.”

Now, before continuing, lets look at a thought from a different arena:

“Pirated digital goods are not stealing. Stealing is when you take something from one place, thus incurring a loss. However, with a digital good, all you are doing is copying some 0s and 1s. It’s not a lost sale because there is nothing preventing sale. The pirate wouldn’t have paid for a copy anyways, so piracy doesn’t harm real sales either. It’s not a physical product, it doesn’t really exist.”

I’m probably a little off on the exact argument, but the point still stands. And the argument for piracy is the same reason e-books cannot be owned: Digital goods do not exist. They are ephemeral data, bits and bytes that can be obliterated with a keystroke. For the pirate, that means what they copy is not something that can be quantified.

For the e-book, that means there is nothing for the consumer to own. They can get some electrical charges that are interpreted and create a digital book, work, art, program, etc. But it cannot be owned, for it is only 1s and 0s. Thus, the only possible recourse is to license people to read certain works. As those 1s and 0s can be infinitely copied from any copy of a copy of a copy of the original, they are all exactly the same, one product, licensed to many to read. A physical book is a product that exists in its own setting. Any “copy” of it is something different. That original still remains in the physical universe.

As much as we try to treat the digital world like the real world, they will never be on equal standing – that’s a good thing, by the way.

This, by no means, contradicts what I said when I endorsed the belief that e-books should be free when people purchase physical copies. That should be the case, always. It’s convenience. The person already has a physical copy that they can read. Purchasing a license to read those words in a different format is silly. It isn’t about rights, though. It’s about what we should be doing to benefit both the consumer and the artist. The middle ground, the way that tries to please as many people as possible in the most practical way possible.

Also, what about DRM? It shouldn’t be included. Yes, I still say the book isn’t owned if its in digital format. Not because I don’t want people owning my books so they can do what they will with them, but because e-copies are ephemeral. They can be deleted at a moments notice. In order for us, as the artists, to give our consumers the closest thing to ownership, we can avoid lacing e-copies with DRM. If a consumer can copy and convert their work from one format to another, one computer to another, then they have a semblance of ownership. Granted, that opens the doors wide to piracy, but the response to that is best said by jakonrath: “… the way to compete with pirates is with cost and convenience.”

653 words I could have used in a novel.

About James Ashman

I write books of the fantasy, heroic, and adventure types. So far. I'm an author who loves fantastic stories.
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