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Do You Ever Own Your E-Books?

Companies giveth, and they taketh away.
August 19, 2013, 5:40pm
Photo via Flickr

A few days ago, a Georgetown professor traveling to Singapore noticed that as soon as he crossed over the border, the Google Play app on his iPad updated and wiped out all the e-books he owned—between 30 and 40 books.

Since the Google Play bookstore isn’t available in Singapore, the app recognized when he had entered a no-books zone and un-downloaded his books, without the option to re-download them. "I must return to the US to be allowed to spend a few hours re-downloading "my" books before I can read them again," Jim O'Donnel wrote in a blog post on the Center for Research Libraries.


Traveling to Singapore with dozens of digital books may seem like an isolated case. But it’s another welcome reminder that the assumption that we actually own the e-books we buy is, well, wrong. In fact, we don’t own them at all—we’re simply licensing them.

E-book sellers like Amazon, Google, and Apple make this clear in their terms and conditions—"Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider"—but continue to perpetuate the false idea of ownership by using words like “purchase,” “buy,” and “bookstore” to give the sense that it’s just like a transaction you have in a brick-and-mortar shop, only a digital version.

In reality, when you license a book, you’re buying the right to access it, but the company still controls the content. For one, even after you fork over $9.99 for the book, the company has a pretty wide reign to take back what you thought you owned.

Tucked away in Google Play’s terms or service, it explains that if it "discontinues a service" it may "remove from your device or cease providing you with access to certain products that you have purchased." We saw this in the case of Professor O’Donnel. And we’ve seen it before.

Most famously, in 2009, Amazon erased George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from thousands of Kindles because of a copyright snag. Then again last year, it wiped a Norwegian customer's Kindle completely, deleting all her books without warning or explanation—experts think have something to do with the fact that she bought in the UK but doesn't live there, but Amazon never clarified. (The account has since been restored.)


Ownership as we generally regard it implies some basic rights—like the right to change, destroy, lend, or resell a book you’ve bought. E-books, which come shackled with restrictions, take away most of these rights.

You can't give away, loan to a friend, trade or sell your book when you're done reading it, because it's bound to the account of your Kindle, Google Play, iBooks, or whatever ecosystem you bought it from. This really ruffles the features of voracious readers, since sharing books is a classic and much-loved tradition, as I wrote about recently.

Yes, you can read your Google Play book on an iPad if you download the Play app, but if you want to switch to the Apple ecosystem entirely, you can’t migrate your Android-purchased books into your iTunes library. You can back up your books to your PC in case something happens to your device, or store them in the cloud to re-download later, but you still won't own them. The DRM encodes them to work only in the ecosystem they came from.

It's worth mentioning that the most open e-book seller is Kobo, an open-source e-reader and bookstore that lets you migrate your books to other e-reader platforms, supports a variety of formats, and tells whether the books being sold through their site are DRM'ed. Books from the Kobo store are still restricted with DRM—that call is made by publishers—but Kobo is more flexible than the web giants trying to lock you into their business.

Publishers’ case for DRM is that there needs to be some added protection, else customers start copying books willy-nilly, resulting in millions of books freely circulating the web. To consumers, on the other hand, it's an annoyance at best, and an insult at worst. What's a digital reader to do?

You can strip out the DRM in your digital books with the right software, some tech savvy, and a willingness to break the rules. And some smaller companies will sell e-books DRM-free, like Calibre or Tor—though they usually don’t have the same wide selection as the big guys.

The question remains, how to avoid piracy without also taking away the basic ownership rights customers should get when they buy an e-book? Many people believe that DRM isn't actually thwarting piracy at all, and getting rid of it won't be the end of the industry—it wasn’t when digital music sellers finally dropped DRM. Though, if the digital music industry is a sign of what's to come, ownership as we knew it might be a thing of the past.