Last week we carried a story about a claim that Random House was going to let libraries “own” its e-books. However, it turns out that “own” may have been an optimistic oversimplification. Peter Brantley, Director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive, writes at Publishers Weekly that he’s had some follow-up discussion with Skip Dye, Random House’s VP of Library and Academic Sales, to get clarification on exactly what “own” meant in that context. (Found via TechDirt.)

What Random House actually meant was that it would assist libraries in moving e-books from one “authorized library wholesaler” to another. The publisher will not even be dealing directly with libraries themselves at all.

RH’s approach in the library market is to vet potential library market distributors for auditing, accounting, security, and other business functions, and then permit libraries to acquire titles from that short list of approved bureaus. In Random’s view, libraries “own” the titles they purchase to the extent that they should be able to migrate their ebook catalogs from one platform, such as Overdrive, to another, such as 3M.

But as Brantley points out, that’s “not ownership. It’s licensing, with benefits.” They can’t move the titles to unapproved platforms, resell or donate books, receive donations of e-books from patrons, and so on. They don’t actually have “ownership” of the books in any real sense. Brantley goes on to complain that libraries want “the kind [of ownership] that appears in the dictionary” giving them more control over how they run their library services.

Of course, under publishers’ current “sales” regime, consumers who purchase e-books don’t truly “own” them either, unless they do something illegal like crack the DRM to make backup copies. As we saw yet again a few days ago with Amazon, publishers or e-book stores can revoke your rights to the e-books you think you “own” at any time, and they can also prevent you from selling, trading, or lending them under current copyright law. This should be unacceptable, and yet as Brantley points out there’s a SCOTUS case underway that might endanger our rights to First Sale for even the physical goods we own.

I’d like to think that as digital media makes it easier to move content around, our ability to use what we buy would be expanded, not whittled away. This hasn’t happened so far, however.


  1. Considering the fact that publishers don’t “own” the digital book or the original copy, only the copyright owner/writer does, they only lease the rights, they can’t very well allow a library or anyone else to “own” what they have no right to sell.

    People really need to get over the belief they own the contents of a book. They own the paper, ink, and binding when they buy a physical book, they don’t own the contents. Without the paper, ink, and binding, they own nothing of a digital book because it is the content.

  2. Marilyn seems to think ‘ownership’ must be physical to be real for those who buy books. That’s no more true for them than it is for the author.

    * The author’s copyright bestows ownership of the content of a book in whatever form it is expressed, including the non-physical. That ‘copyright’ gives the author the right to sell copies directly or through others and also to sell other rights such as those for movies.

    * The book purchaser has bought the rights to a single copy of that content. That’s why individuals or libraries get angry if they can’t move their single-copy digital content to a different platform. That’s like saying that, when you move, you can’t take that physical copy with you. It has to stay on that same shelf in your old apartment.

    It’s also why the more ‘with it’ publishers such as:

    give you an account with them that lets you download, whenever you want, versions of that digital copy you own in the standard ebook formats. I’ve bought four books from them, and I just checked my members page. All are available for download as ePub, Mobi, and PDF, and two also have a format called Daisy. Here is how they express their policy:

    “You get lifetime access to ebooks you purchase through Whenever possible we provide them to you in five DRM-free file formats — PDF, ePub, Kindle-compatible .mobi, DAISY, and Android .apk — that you can use on the devices of your choice. Our ebooks are enhanced with color images, even when the print version is black and white. They are fully searchable, and you can cut-and-paste and print them. We also alert you when we’ve updated your ebooks with corrections and additions. Now includes Dropbox Sync!”

    It’s a measure of just how clueless the major publishers are that they’re not doing something similar. Among other things, it’d give them a highly useful, Amazon-like awareness of who their readers are and what sort of books they like.

    Apple, at least, seems to be moving that direction. Like O’Reilly, when you buy an ebook from them, you get the revisions free. And both Amazon and Apple let you keep a copy with them, sparing you the hassle of making sure that digital copy doesn’t get lost when you get a new computer or tablet.

    To some extent, this warped ‘you don’t own it’ model flows from the software world, where some companies claim that those who buy their products merely have a license to use it. The better ones (i.e. Adobe) let you transfer that license or even move it from the Windows version to the Mac version. Others don’t.

    But for software, that seeming limitation mattered less because new versions come out every year or two devaluing the old. License or ownership, buyers were happy to get the latest version, usually at a discount. The same isn’t true of ebooks. Those who buy ebooks want to be able to read or loan them many years in the future.

  3. I understand copyright perfectly well. The ebook buyer owns the lease to an ebook, not the ebook itself. Only the copyright holder owns the content.

    I totally agree that libraries should be able to retain the lease in whatever format they can use, but it is a lease, not ownership.

  4. If you “own” a copy of a physical book, you may do with that copy whatever you will. That includes burning it, passing it on to heirs, selling it and, yes, lending it to others. The doctrine of first sale is clear with respect to physical books.
    Some publishers see an opportunity to change all that and improve the predictability (evenness) of their annual cash flow. This is important to Wall Street and, so, important to many publishers, at least the myopic ones.
    By privatizing the “sale” of eBooks, publishers have the opportunity to revoke the centuries-long principle of first sale. All they need to do is to obtain your agreement to such terms. So far, there is much success to report. The sheeple line up and even pay the sheering fees.
    This is a private contract and not to be interfered with by government regulations and regulators.
    Privatization is an excellent way to avoid the inconveniences to commerce presented by constitutional protections.

  5. Consider a book template that links print, paper and binding or, say, phosphor image, screen display and hand-held device. Using this template of image, display and commodity it is apparent that print components cannot be separated while screen book components cannot be fused together. This distinction modifies ownership since with print you must purchase the linkage while with screen books you must purchase variable configurations.

  6. Marilynn,

    When you buy a physical book your rights to that particular copy cannot be abridged or modified by the publisher or the book seller because the only “contract” is the one implicit in all retail sales. The doctrine of first sale applies. When you buy (their term) an eBook from Amazon, you enter into a contract where you waive any claims to a proprietary interest in that particular copy. Other eBook sellers are free to offer different, more liberal, terms (e.g. O’Reilly).

    The problem here is the dishonesty inherent in using terms such as “buy” when “lease” is closer to the truth. The obfuscation of contractual terms with click-through license notices that may change from one sale to another simply compounds the deception. Sellers who want you to believe that you own a copy of an eBook in the same ways that you can own a physical book are engaged in deception and need to be regulated. Like the warnings we see on other products, eBooks need to contain a clear, human-readable statement as to what it is that you have actually purchased. I would wager that a large proportion of eBook buyers today do not have a clear understanding of what they have actually purchased. If they did, we might see eBook sellers competing with one another with respect to the terms of their lease and that would be a good thing IMHO.

  7. Frank, I am a writer so specific words matter to me. “Buy” is a flawed term, but we’re stuck with it.

    As to rights, etc., most ebooks have an explanation that the book was leased and what you can and can’t do to it. Most people ignore it the same way they look past the FBI notice on a movie. Places like Amazon do a poor job of displaying this information on their sites, but they do have it for those who pay attention.

  8. I agee with Frank Lowney, the purchaser of an e-book does not own the content of the book, just the medium. e-publishing creates a dilemma for the publishing industry because the public, libraries included, can’t seem to get their heads around the fact there must be some limitations places on the use of e-books. If not, untimately it is the author who is the loser.
    Would a librarian scan a hard copy book and e-mail the contents to all of the patrons on their “Holds” list? I think not. So why do so many libraries, library organizations and patrons believe they should OWN the e-book and do with it what they will?

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