Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[publishing] Books as licenses - print and ebooks both

One thread of the ongoing ebook discussion on the Internet has been the perception of a lot of readers (including, possibly, reporters at Wired) that ebooks have no incremental cost, and therefore should tend to be free. This assumption ignores sunk costs in book acquisition and production, as well as ongoing royalties to authors. It's also based on misperceptions about the value of physical objects versus virtual objects.

I am still chewing on notion that ebooks are a service, and print books are a product, but I'm thinking I've still got it wrong. Yes, ebooks under DRM behave like like a service, but even DRM-free ebooks are presented under a EULA. (Please note, this is not a defense of DRM, just an acknowlegement it exists.) Print books behave like a product in the sense that you purchase a physical object that is yours to use or dispose of largely as you see fit, much as an automobile or a frying pan or an action figure may be used or disposed of largely as you see fit.

The true, underlying product is story. Every delivery mechanism — print books, ebooks, audio — are licenses to that story. Copyright and ultimate ownership still vest with the author (or in the case of work-for-hire, the license holder).

When you purchase a print book, you purchase a single-use, transferable license to that story in the form of the author's copyright. With limited exceptions for Fair Use, you don't have permission to copy or reproduce the print book. You can pass it along to other readers, resell it, or otherwise dispose of the print book, but all that is in terms of the license embedded in the print book itself. License and artefact are difficult to separate, though not impossible. For example, scanning, photocopying or rekeying beyond the bounds of Fair Use would serve to sever license from artefact, and all three are illegal.

When you purchase an ebook, depending on the DRM wrappers on the book, your rights of transferability may vary. Likewise back up copying, resale and so forth can be influenced by both DRM and the EULA associated with your ebook reader and the software compilation that represents the ebook publication itself. But you still don't own the copyright, again, you have only purchased a license to that story in the from of an author's copyright.

Because fundamentally, that's what the author sells to the publisher. A license to reproduce the copyright.

What I'm getting at here is that the whole question of ebooks versus print books is a bit of a red herring. You don't own the book, any more that you own the performance of a song you buy on CD or mp3. I think this differs from purchasing visual art, where you can own the painting, but even then, the artist can reserve reproduction rights.

It all comes down to concepts of intellectual property, which are frankly a bit abstruse for most people who don't need to spend their time worrying about such things. Even if you buy a Braun coffee maker, you don't buy the rights to recreate it in your workshop and sell copies of the coffee maker. Except the process of copying a coffee maker is so tedious, that unless you own a Third World knockoff factory, you're not going to bother.

Copying or scanning a print book is a possible behavior. Copying an ebook is a trivial behavior, at least technically.

But you, the reader, never take full title to the story underneath. You have taken a license to that story, a contract ultimately between you and the author, embedded in the copyright statement in the front matter of the book. And that license has value, whether it's delivered on cellulose and ink, or via an organized compilation of electrons.

If this were more widely understood, would it shift the terms of the ebook debate?

Tags: amazonfail, publishing

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