Monday, March 24, 2008

What it means when you "buy" an e-book

From Gizmodo the other day: Four students at Columbia Law School are examining your resale and copying rights when it comes to e-books you buy for your Kindle or Sony Reader.

The short version appears to be thus: You are no longer buying a book. Instead, you are buying a license (a rather restricted one) to the intellectual property which comprises the book.

The difference is subtle, but important.

Buying a paper-and-glue, physical book implicitly gives you the right to basically do whatever you want with it. Read it 47 times, loan it to your friends, use it to chock the wheels of your '73 Nova, or hock it on Ebay - it is, to a very great extent, up to you. You own the book.

Buying a license to an e-book isn't the same thing. You can still read the book 47 times (or 47,000 times) - that part doesn't change. However, you can no longer loan it out or resell it.

What the boys and girls at Columbia are working on is this: Is it legal? Is the fine print on the transaction enforceable?

The answer seems to be yes and no.

It hasn't been tested in court, but there seems to be a compelling argument that the transaction legally "looks" more like the sale of a good rather than a license. If that's the case, "users will retain their rights to resell the copy".

Yay, right? Not so fast...

It may turn out that you still wouldn't be able to reproduce your copy (i.e.; copy the file to a flash drive and hand it over), an act which is, legally, the same thing as Xeroxing your beat-up edition of Cujo.

So, where does all this leave us? I don't know. Its stuff like this (along with the obvious v1.0 technology questions) which makes me hold off on the Kindle. These issues will get sorted out, but it's difficult to see how the consumer doesn't get screwed in the end.

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