Free The eBooks! New petition calls for supporting consumer ownership of ebooks…I think

Yesterday, I saw a link to a new petition on the U.S. government’s website to allow the “unlocking” of ebooks and reaffirmation of ownership rights by consumers for these digital goods. This comes on the heels of the Obama administration coming out strongly in favor of fully legalizing the jailbreaking or unlocking of cell phones. I agree with both sentiments, but the new petition has some issues. Here is the text: 

Protect Readers’ Rights by Unlocking Ebooks

The White House recently came out in favor of allowing consumers to unlock their own cellular telephones. We are asking the White House to apply the same laws and provisions to ebooks.

The purchase of a book, whether online or not, is a purchase, not a license. Digital books should be legal to read on any device that supports standard text files. Legally purchased digital books should not self-destruct, expire or disapper, except under conditions of damage or obsalescence. Within reasonable limits, book purchasers have the right to lend or give books to friends, charitable organizations and libraries. Finally, libraries should be permitted to lend ebooks under the same rules as physical books.

We ask the Obama Administration to champion the rights of readers to own their ebooks.

So, typos notwithstanding, let’s discuss. And by the way, if you’re going to post a petition concerning important issues like literature and consumer rights, you really should spellcheck the damn thing, otherwise your credibility could “disapper.”

For starters, the White House didn’t apply any laws or provisions regarding unlocked cell phones, they only expressed support for the notion going forward. The relevant laws concerning this, specifically in the DMCA, clearly ban the activity. Their opinion on this is all it is, just an opinion. For cell phone unlocking to actually be legal, it’ll take a legislative fix. Good luck with that. Not to mention, they stopped short of showing support for similar unlocking of ereaders and video game consoles, etc (they did mention tablets but only in the limited sense that they were becoming more like smart phones which dedicated ereaders are definitely not). A logical view would follow that if jailbreaking phones is okay, then doing so with all devices should be as well. But the White House doesn’t stretch that far, with their stated position directed at preventing lock-in by telecomm service providers and has nothing at all to do with content providers. In fact, the White House specifically called for “narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space.” That’s a far cry from rallying around customer rights for content they purchase. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but there is no law or provision in this that’s even applicable to content rights for consumers.

I completely agree with the statement that buying an ebook is a purchase not a license, but that’s far from a popular position to hold. Over the past couple months, in arguing in favor of resale rights to digital goods, I found myself in many places arguing just that point of view. Content providers, including many independent writers, are clinging to the license scheme, and with some solid justification. There have been a few conflicting court decisions, but it’s far from decided that the sale referred to here is, legally speaking, actually a sale. I believe it is, and I think the licensing regime we’ve got going on here is potentionally the greatest threat to consumer rights in any of our lifetimes, but I’m definitely on the minority side of that point of view. It’s going to take a favorable SCOTUS ruling to affirm such rights, as a legislative fix simply isn’t happening in this atmosphere, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for it, even if I absolutely believe it’s what needs to happen to retain balance between producers and consumers in the stream of commerce.

I’m somewhat confused by the statement that says digital books should be legal to read on devices that support standard text files. Ebooks aren’t standard text files and, as formats improve (epub3, html5, etc) they’re even less comparable to simple text. Unless the petitioner is advocating for stripping off the bells and whistles to bare bones text, I don’t understand the point of this statement. Seems naive and, much like the recent lawsuit from bookstores against Amazon and the Big 6 calling for “open-source DRM,” whatever the hell that is, it comes off as very tech-ignorant.

As for libraries being able to loan ebooks under the same rules as print, I have two questions. One, ebooks aren’t print so why would you want to limit libraries to a physical standard that doesn’t necessarily apply? Secondly, and most importantly, the petition plays fast and loose with the first sale provision of copyright law. The ability of libraries to lend physical books as they have comes from first sale. The petitioner’s opening statement that an ebook buy is a purchase not a license supports a first sale position, but it also seems to go out of its way to avoid even mentioning consumer’s rights under the same provision, notably resale. Is the suggestion here that libraries should be granted a waiver to exploit first sale rights customers shouldn’t have, even though it opens with a strong statement supporting a first sale argument? I don’t get it. If the point here is to free ebooks from lockdown control of content providers, why skip the most important tool to achieve that, a true ownership stake in the ebook for the purchaser?

What I see as the big flaw in the argument here is the warping of the concept of first sale rights. Libraries can have them, apparently, the license scheme used to block them is dismissed, yet for some reason, consumers should still be left wanting for their full rights under copyright law? Why? And what, exactly, are reasonable limits to purchasers lending ebooks? Why should libraries get more rights to lend books than consumers? How is it that I can give away or donate said ebook, a library can then use first sale to lend it, but I can’t use the exact same provision of copyright to resell it? I thought this was about freeing ebooks for consumers, but it seems more like exempting libraries than truly benefitting paying readers.

The petition ends with a call for the Obama administration to champion the rights of readers to own their ebooks. I agree, but that’s not what they’re calling for here. This petition still ignores first sale rights for consumers while championing them for libraries and even accepting restrictions on consumers to lend or give away said ebooks. This isn’t ownership at all, but simply a desire to read a Kindle ebook on a Nook or similar type of arrangement. If all you really want is to prevent content provider lock-in to specific devices, then say that. Don’t muddle the issue with notions of first sale or ownership that you’re not even advocating. The wording of the petition also allows for ebooks to be deleted or removed due to obsolescence (misspelled obsalescence, which is a fascinating freudian slip, as license schemes are already limiting the very idea of what constitutes a sale).

I think this is a nice thought, preventing vendor lock-in has some definite merits, but ultimately this petition is poorly executed and unnecessarily convoluted. And again, spellcheck, dammit!

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