There's a crass old joke about how you can never buy beer, just rent it. Who would think that the same joke applies to book buying in the digital age?
But that's the case. Many people who'll be unwrapping iPads, Amazon Kindles or Barnes & Noble Nooks on Tuesday morning and loading them with bestsellers or classics won't have any idea how limited their rights are as their books' "owners."
In fact, they won't be owners at all. They'll be licensees. Unlike the owners of a physical tome, they won't have the unlimited right to lend an e-book, give it away, resell it or leave it to their heirs. If it's bought for their iPad, they won't be able to read it on their Kindle. And if Amazon or the other sellers don't like what they've done with it, they can take it back, without warning.
All these restrictions "raise obvious questions about what 'ownership' is," observes Dan Gillmor, an expert on digital media at Arizona State University. "The companies that license stuff digitally have made it clear that you own nothing."
Typically, e-book buyers have no idea about these complexities. How could they? The rules and limitations are embodied in "terms of service" documents that Amazon, Apple, B&N and other sellers shroud in legalese and bury deep in their websites. That tells you how little they want you to know.
The rules are based, in turn, on the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with which Congress hoped to balance the rights of copyright holders and content users. "In the digital environment, that's always been the trickiest balance to strike," Annemarie Bridy, a specialist in intellectual property law at the University of Idaho, told me. In those terms, the DMCA looks like a failure.
Both camps have important rights to protect. Let's start with copyright owners.
In the non-digital world, copyright ends with the first sale of each copyrighted object. Under the "first sale" doctrine, once you buy a book, that physical book is yours to lend, give away, or resell. Copyright is safeguarded by the limitations of physical transfer — once the book is given or loaned, the original buyer no longer has access to it. If a library owns five copies of a book, only five borrowers can read it at the same time. Theoretically a book can be photocopied, but only at great effort and with a perceptible loss of quality.
In digital-dom, however, technology allows infinite copies to be made, with no loss of quality. Absent the usual restrictions, one could give away an e-book and still have it to read. Unrestricted transferability becomes a genuine threat to the livelihood of authors, artists, filmmakers, musicians.
So some limitation is sensible. That's usually done through digital rights management, or DRM, which encodes copy or usage limitations into the digital file. The DMCA protected DRM by outlawing efforts to circumvent it (with a few exceptions).
The question is whether the balance has tipped too far in favor of the booksellers, at the consumers' expense. The answer is yes.
For one thing, DRM has put far too much power in the hands of digital booksellers. Amazon, in particular, has shown it can't be trusted with that power. In 2009, having learned that it inadvertently had sold unauthorized e-book versions of George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" through its website, the company simply deleted those e-books from buyers' Kindles stealthily, without warning.
An uproar followed, not least because Amazon's Orwellian behavior involved those Orwellian masterpieces. Amazon settled a subsequent lawsuit by promising never to steal a book back from a Kindle without the device owner's permission.
But earlier this year, the company was revealed to have unilaterally shut down the access of Linn Jordet Nygaard, a Norwegian Kindle owner, to her library of 43 e-books, for reasons it refused to divulge. Another uproar, and Amazon backed down again, restoring Nygaard's account — again without explanation. Amazon refused my request for comment.
Another downside of e-book DRM is that most e-books are tied to the seller's reading device or apps. Buy a book from Amazon, and you can read it only on a Kindle or Amazon app. Buy it from Apple, and it can be read only on an Apple device.
This lock-in gives the booksellers power over not only consumers but publishers. In fact, it led several publishers to make a price-fixing deal with Apple that aimed to undermine Amazon's market power, but ended with their getting whacked with a big federal antitrust fine instead.
Moreover, notwithstanding the public impression that digital is forever, nothing is permanent in the digital world. In fact, digital content can be less permanent than physical books. In libraries you can find volumes that date back hundreds of years and can still be read (if carefully); but there are digital files that date back only a decade yet are completely unintelligible today.
Nowhere does Amazon, Apple or any other distributor pledge to support its digital formats in perpetuity. Quite the contrary: They typically warn that they can cancel their service at any time, without warning, in a way that could end your access to a lifetime of e-book purchases in the flash of an electron. They could also go out of business, leaving millions of dependent customers in the lurch.
Amazon keeps your purchased content for free on its own servers — the term is "in the cloud" — for downloading to your Kindles as needed. You pay once for an e-book and can use it on all the Kindles you own. I can't find any written promise by Amazon that this storage will always be free. If it announces a few years from now that henceforth there will be a monthly fee to store books purchased, say, more than 10 years ago, what rights will you have to resist? None.
There are ways to protect your e-books from grasping e-booksellers or the future. Programs available on the Web can strip the DRM code from your purchased items — for books, one possible method involves an e-library management program called Calibre. The program easily can be augmented with a DRM-stripping application so you can convert e-books sold in any proprietary format into a different format or even as plain text.
But is it legal? No one is quite sure, and that's a problem. The DMCA makes it unlawful to circumvent certain DRM protection, but doing so on an item you've bought and want to keep in a different format for your own use — not to make multiple copies for sale — may not break the law. On the other hand, distributing software that enables that is illegal under the DMCA even if the goal is legitimate, which is absurd.
Even if reformatting a file you own is legal, what if you don't own it? The hard-to-find terms of service of e-book sellers specify that you're only licensing a book, not buying it (although the Amazon order page does say you're "buying" it). "In the digital context, it's not clear that the 'first sale' has ever occurred," says Bridy.
It should be a top priority for Congress to clear out the murk. Buyers of e-books must have the explicit right to reformat their purchases and save backup copies for their own use, permanently. The sale of an e-book must be irrevocable. On the other side, it must remain strictly illegal to make multiple unauthorized copies of any copyrighted work for distribution. Lending by libraries, one digital copy at a time, should be facilitated — it tends to widen the audience for books.
The guiding principle must be that an e-book owner's rights and responsibilities parallel those of a book owner, and the same must go for authors, publishers and booksellers. "Someone once observed to me that if libraries were being invented today, publishers would try to make them illegal," Gillmor says.
Clarify these rules of e-book commerce, and the book market will reap the benefit. The power of electronic booksellers over publishers might be reduced, and consumers would know what they were buying — and would own what they bought. Leave the rules as vague as they are, and the victims will be authors, consumers and publishers.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.