Licensing is for Software NOT for Literature

I will be the first to admit that I love books. I grew up in a house and with a father who imparted me with a serious love of books and reading and my own library is in the thousands. I read widely and deeply – dozens of books every year and wish I had even more time to read. I love books and so perhaps you ought to dismiss everything I am about to write as the words of a committed bibliophile.

On the flip side though I am also nuts about technology. There are not that many pieces of consumer electronics that I don’t lust after; that I can’t convince myself – in my heart-of-hearts – will make my life better. Anyone who knows me knows that I carry a wide array (wider than most people) of electronics with me – an iPhone, a digital SLR, a video recorder of some sort, a Mac Book Pro, etc.

Ten years ago maybe I got a Handspring Visor. This was the same year the Rocket ebook reader came out and I lusted after the thing. The idea of being able to carry multiple books with me wherever I went was really appealing. My wife told me she had considered getting it for me but settled on the Visor since it had broader utility. A little disappointed maybe but I got an ebook reader for the Handspring and downloaded several books from Project Gutenberg. I wasn’t blown away.

Since then the market for ebooks and ebook readers has taken off. But at the same time my desire to won one has lessened. In part it’s because I enjoy the form factor of the book – all of the nostalgic things people love about them – their shape and weight, the way you can see your progress as the bookmark marches from front to back, etc. I love coming across old boarding passes that make me think of trips longs past, or the dried flower I wore as a boutonniere at a friend’s wedding.

Those tangible aspects of the book are only part of their appeal. A much bigger part of it has to do with ownership. When I buy a book it’s my book. The primary relationship is between me and the author and their work – not between me and the publisher or distributor. Sure – they are the means for me getting my hands on the work, but once I do, their part of the process has ended. With ebooks that isn’t the case. Once I make the purchase that relationship has only just begun.

For me, one of the wonderful things about books is their fluidity. I can read one and think of the friend for whom it would be perfect and then I can hand them my copy of the book. I can tell them to read it and to have my copy – even if I know I’ll never get it back. Often once I do that with a friend they’ll do the same for me sometime – recommending and sharing books. I like the ecosystem of readers that grows around books.

Back in 2006 I met Greg Boesel, the CEO of Swaptree. They gave me a whole new means of enjoying books – by allowing me to trade them with other readers using their service. Their model replaced something that had all but disappeared – the used book store – where I could off-load books that I had finished. With the rise of the big box bookshops and Amazon there stopped being easy ways to buy and sell used books and Swaptree nicely fills the void.

Right now there is no way to sell or trade or share ebooks. This might make sense for someone but it doesn’t for readers. Let’s look at how the print and electronic models approach your relationship to content.

Here is the copyright notice from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem:

Anathem. Copyright 2008 by Neal Stephenson. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information address HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53 Street, New York, NY, 10022.

Pretty clear and simple.

Now here is the digital content section of the licensing agreement for the Amazon Kindle – which is in addition to the copyright of the publisher:

3. Digital Content

The Kindle Store. The Kindle Store enables you to download, display and use on your Device a variety of digitized electronic content, such as books, subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, journals and other periodicals, blogs, RSS feeds, and other digital content, as determined by Amazon from time to time (individually and collectively, “Digital Content”).

Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

Subscriptions. The following applies with respect to Digital Content made available to you on a subscription basis, including, but not limited to, electronic newspapers, magazines, journals and other periodicals (collectively, “Periodicals”): (i) you may request cancellation of your subscription by following the cancellation instructions in the Kindle Store; (ii) we may terminate a subscription at our discretion without notice, for example, if a Periodical is no longer available; (iii) if we terminate a subscription in advance of the end of its term, we will give you a prorated refund; (iv) we reserve the right to change subscription terms and fees from time to time, effective as of the beginning of the next term; and (v) taxes may apply to subscription fees and will be added if applicable.

Not so simple.

The written word differs from other content types – music, video and software – in that it hasn’t required anything but a set of eyes to use in the past. If you wanted to hear a song you had to either know how to play it, have a band who could play it or a device that could play it. The ease of reading is important. Music and video are also more ephemeral. A song is three of four minutes long – even a symphony is perhaps an hour. A book is a commitment to spending days – if not weeks – considering a topic or ideas or characters.

Because the relationship to the content is different between a book and a song, for example, it makes sense that they be treated differently. I can listen to a song over and over again in a single day but I’m unlikely to read many books more than once in the course of my lifetime.

Ebooks also encourage the kid-in-a-candy store model that Apple brought to music with iTunes. The fact that you can store dozens of books on a reader doesn’t mean you’re actually *reading* them all. For me reading is a much more conscious decision. I often have eight or 10 books on deck at any moment but eventually I choose one and commit to reading it. I buy and choose books very carefully because I know I’m going to be spending a lot of time with it.

Downloads make the selection process far less critical. As with a song you may have heard something about the book, might have enjoyed something else by the author, always wanted to read it, know it’s popular, etc. That impulse is one thing for ephemeral content but as I said books are not ephemeral. Their storage media lasts for a long, long time.

One of my favorite books is a copy of the Massachusetts Constitution that also includes the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s Farewell Address. It was published – an bound in light wood – in 1805 when many of the drafters and signers and citizens and soldiers who had lived through the Revolution were still living. There’s something that transcends content at that point – there is a connection to a past that is lost when it is digitized.

You are being sold a bill of goods when you make the move from printed books to ebooks – make no mistake about it. This model is not in the interest of readers who may eventually find their libraries incompatible with later generation ebook readers, who cannot share or sell their books when finished and forced to make compromises that print readers do not (I love the glossy pages of illustrations in many of my books – they don’t do so well in an ebook).

While some issues will be addressed through improved technology, the different ways we connect with content requires different ways of owning that content – and the nature of printed works ought to have all of us saying that licensing is for software – not for literature.

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