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EDITORIAL: Control versus convenience with eBooks

Control versus convenience

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Anyway, now that there actually is an eBook industry, discussions about the current commercial model have become more concrete. What I have seen lately are objections to the price of eBooks (too close to those of paper books) and the level of control of commercial electronic content, including DRM (too restrictive).

Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement and the GNU project, argues that eBooks are inferior to printed books due issues of excessive content control. In his article, "The Dangers of E-Books, Stallman compares Amazon's Kindle model with a traditional print model and finds it lacking. Basically, he argues that, unlike printed books, Amazon eBooks:

  • Can't be purchased anonymously (e.g., with cash)
  • Can't be owned in all countries (in some countries, Amazon says that users don't own purchased eBooks)
  • Require users to accept a licensing agreement, which restricts the use of purchased content more than copyright law
  • Can't be freely lent, given or sold
  • Can't be copied, due to both DRM and licensing restrictions
  • Can be remotely deleted by the vendor (a couple of years ago, Amazon erased copies of Orwell's 1984 from users' systems)
  • Are presented in a format that can only be read by proprietary software

He then goes on to champion a rejection of eBooks "until they respect our freedom". In order to address his problems with the current commercial eBook model, Stallman suggests that either authors could be compensated by being apportioned tax funds based on their popularity, or by redesigning players to allow anonymous donations.

While I think that most of Stallman's objections to Amazon-style eBooks are true, I don't find them sufficiently compelling to support his position. Personally, I think that Stallman overestimates the importance and feasibility of anonymity. I have had to sign registers to buy certain printed books (Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho springs to mind), and I buy most of my books using credit or debit cards. Sure, this process lacks the anonymity of a cash transaction, but that's a price I willingly pay for the convenience of paying by card. Indeed, in Australia (where I live), consumers are increasingly going online for better prices, bigger ranges and greater convenience than traditional bricks-and-mortar stores. Online retailers tend not to take cash, and those who do still need to match payments to orders for shipping purposes.

As for ownership and use of content, I think Stallman is on firmer ground. I was disgusted by the 1984 deletion episode, and dislike the restrictive level of control Amazon and others exert over electronic content. I have just found myself buying Kindle and printed copies of the latest book by my favorite author, just so that I will have a copy to lend to my friends. The thing is, I did still buy and read the Kindle version. Why? The convenience, of course! The book in question is a weighty hardcover tome, but my Kindle is compact, lightweight, and has a built-in zoom feature for scrutinizing maps and other images. My Kindle can also hold a bunch of other books, journal articles and personal documents without adding any back-strain.

Admittedly, if I could loan my Kindle version of the book to a friend, I probably wouldn't have bought the hardcover. I don't claim that I am happy with the extra limitations placed on digital content, but am unwilling to forego the convenience of eBooks in protest. I am also unconvinced by Stallman's suggested alternatives to the current model. Perhaps a better model might be to follow the example of music at the iTunes Store, and remove DRM, but retain the same general commercial model. This would allow lending, giving and copying from a technical standpoint, but would rely on the honor system for deleting extraneous copies of purchased content. Revising licensing agreements could bring them into line with copyright law. Of course, I doubt that this option would find favor with hard-liners like Stallman, due to the lack of anonymity, and we'd still need to convince the Amazons of the world ... along with the publishers.

Given my background, I am a firm advocate of electronic content -- the site isn't called "Planet Paper", after all. While I believe that the current, tightly controlled commercial eBook model is far from perfect, it's getting better. I love my Kindle and wouldn't give it up without a fight. Heck, I can always grab copyright-free titles from Project Gutenberg if I get too disillusioned with commercial eBooks!

So, that's my two cents. What do you think? Let us know on the Planet PDF Forum.

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