Sunday, 5 July 2015

You Never Owned It Anyway

In all of the furor over subscription models, it’s easy to overlook the most fundamental part of the eBook system: you don’t own an eBook.

We have never ‘sold’ eBooks. They are merely licensed. Readers pay for the right to read the eBook
Sure, you own the kindle itself but that’s it. The books on there are sold in the same way software is sold. It’s a sale of a licence, the terms of which are defined by the contract. In the case of Amazon that contract is defined in s1 of the Kindle Store Terms of Use which says:

...the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Kindle Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Supported Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. The Content Provider may include additional terms of use within its Kindle Content.


Let’s break that down a bit.

“Non-exclusive” – not just for you

“View, use and display” – read

“an unlimited number of times” – but you probably won’t want to…

“solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application” – you can’t use DRM stripping tools to convert it for another eReader

“solely on the number of Kindles or Supported Devices specified” – good luck finding that in the store. It should be somewhere on the product page.

“solely for your personal, non-commercial use” – just you, not your Mum, not your best mate, and not your dog (sorry, Lassie).

“Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider” – you own a license subject to these terms. You don’t own the book.

“The Content Provider may include additional terms of use within its Kindle Content” – This one I find perplexing. I’ve never seen a publisher add any extra terms. Perhaps I should include some in our next book (similar to Gamestation’s “we own your soul”stunt).

So we now know that instead of buying a book, you’re basically renting it for as long as you want it (or as long as Amazon remain in business; it’s not impossible that you might outlive the corporation providing the content, as big as they seem right now). You can’t flog it. You can’t use it in another format. You can’t lend it to a mate.

Pretty naff, right? If you buy a book you can do what you want with it. You can flog it on second hand. You can burn it in disgust (please don’t!). You can use it as a doorstop (here’s looking at you, Blackstone's Criminal Practice) . Give it away. Recycle it. Whatever.

In the USA, you’ve got the First Sale Doctrine which basically says “Pass it on as you bought it” (not legal advice, I’m oversimplifying).

Of course, books still have some legal blurbage in them. From one on my shelf, chosen at random, the copyright page says:

this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed upon the subsequent purchaser.”

Restrictions are nothing new. I think of it like buying a DVD. I’m buying it to watch at home – but not to use to run a bootleg cinema. It’s not a clear cut issue – there has to be a divide somewhere between “you and only you, alone, in your own home, while no-one else is watching” and “running the new big sceen multiplex”.

With books, that line is well established. There have been numerous cases. You do own a physical book. That doesn’t mean you own the intellectual property that goes with it, but that specific rendition of the words onto that paper? It’s yours. Do with it what you will.
And that works.
But it works because books are hard to copy. Imagine if you had to photocopy every page of a novel (or, if you’re a student, a whole textbook). Nightmare. It just isn’t worth it. And that’s basically been the bulwark against mass-copying. People can’t be arsed.

With eBooks, it’s too easy to copy. I can email you books in a heartbeat. There are cheeky gits selling CDs full of eBooks on eBay for a few pence (perhaps not all of them legal – though public domain books can be resold freely). That’s the fundamental difference. Because you can copy it, publishers restrict your legal rights because they can’t physically stop you.

It isn’t legal for you to decrypt the DRM on an eBook. But it is easy. Ten seconds with a widely available eBook management program and you can take off any restrictions currently employed. The lock is a warning that you’re breaking the rules, but it isn’t much of an actual deterrent.

I don’t use DRM. Dan and I think its waste of time. Pirated copies are already stripped of DRM, so the only people hurt by employing DRM to protect eBooks are those that have actually paid – and you deserve better.

I’m also pretty unlikely to sue anyone lending a book out. It might be technically illegal to email a friend a copy of my book (though there is a ‘Kindle Lending’ option for those who want to stay within the rules) but it’s not going to hurt anyone if you do. I’d appreciate it if people thought of eBooks like books – that lending out your copy to one friend is fine, but emailing twenty at the same time is taking the proverbial (as with a book you couldn’t physically do that).

It comes down to respect. Authors and publishers need to respect that readers consume content how they want to consume it – and will pay accordingly. Readers in turn will appreciate that authors need to earn money for their work. Writing a book is a labour of love, but paying the bills isn’t, so there has to be a fair bargain.

For us, that’s simple. Here are our rules for trying to be fair to readers:

1.  First book free. Every series we publish we try to work on a ‘first book free’ basis. Obviously, this applies to series – so the first one is only the first (and thus free) once a second book exists. That gives you a fair, free, no obligations chance to find out if you like it.
2.     No DRM. Who are we to tell you which device to use?
3.     No part-works. No cheating by selling you 1/3rd of a book for free, and then extorting you on parts two and three.
4.     The best books we can write. That doesn’t mean they’ll be perfect. No book nor author will ever be loved universally, but we’ll give it our best shot every time.
5.     Clear, fair pricing. We want to charge a fair amount. We need to cover our costs (which are basically: editing, art, promotion, translations, audio recording, formatting, and, most of all, time). That’s it. We keep note of the time taken to produce a book, ascribe that a notional hourly rate and thus come up with a ‘Total cost’ figure which is what we aim to get back. It’s then a case of working backwords from there to determine what we can reasonably charge that fits that goal and makes it fair for you. We’ve gone with £1.99/ $2.99 (after the first one free – so right now the two books in the DCI Morton series will set you back a whopping £1.99 total!).

Or you can read for free with Kindle Unlimited. It’s a subscription service. You don’t buy a book. But you do rent access to a whole collection. The author then gets paid on pages read (at about half a cent a page by the looks of things). I’ve had a few people say “I’d rather own my book” – in which case, print is still the medium of choice. KU is a rental – for the duration of membership. Then again, eBooks are just rentals too – for the duration of Amazon.

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