The End of the Affair (with Ownership of Books)

About once a year I read an article so significant that by the time I finish underlining, highlighting, circling and starring it, there is scarcely anything left to excerpt.  Such is the case with Tim Spalding’s The downward spiral of ownership and value published on the thingology blog of the website LibraryThing. Spalding is founder of the website.

He was prompted to write his piece in response to a posting about ownership in the age of e-books. “I’m sure that there are other possibilities,” his correspondent wrote, “but with the amelioration of ownership and comparable media prices, digital books will come down from their current position and this, in turn, will create new business models and new pricing models. Could publishers resist the downward pressure of ebook pricing by coming up with a business model which would result in increased sense of ownership and thus value to the consumer?”

Spalding is hard pressed to answer in the affirmative.  “The loss of ownership creates a downward spiral in value,” he writes, “and erodes the very notion of paying for books at all.

“We used to own our books,” he writes. “With most ebooks we own them in name, but effectively we lease them….The slide toward more and more attenuated concepts of ownership continues.” The spirit of open access infusing the Internet is eroding the tradition of book ownership, and new, access-based models will eventually achieve dominance.

“The process,” Spalding writes, “is gradual” because psychology and culture always lag behind technology. But a “tethered, metered and monitored product” is inevitable as “each step away from ownership makes the next step more acceptable. Once you realize your Kindle book is not fully yours, you’ll accept it being mostly not yours. Google Ebooks are a further step away from ownership.

“By itself, such changes might be culturally and economically neutral. Ownership of paper books wasn’t so much a consumer preference as a side effect of their physical nature, and law followed and solemnized that state of affairs. Maybe the faucet model will produce more readers, more reading, more good books, more paid authors, etc. Or maybe it will produce less. Who knows?

“The role of piracy. I think we know. And the trends are negative, for both readers and authors. Unfortunately, digitization and the faucet model tends to encourage a third option–piracy. Digitization makes it possible, but the faucet model encourages it. This happens in two ways.

“First, people who love autonomy and personal freedom rebel against metered and monitored access to reading. They don’t want inconvenient DRM, monstrous and opaque licenses, transfer limitations, constant access requirements or icky, opaque monitoring. These people will turn to piracy to avoid it. (Or at least that’s what they’ll say they’re doing.)

“Second, the more ownership is devalued, the less people care about the rights of the seller. When someone sells you something they made, or through a small number of simple intermediaries, it’s easy to see what’s wrong about cheating them. When authors’ work is reduced to a limitless soup, available through shiny digital spigots at cheap, but limited, rates, it’s hard to see where problem with piracy really lies, and easier to rationalize cheating authors.

As devalued ownership feeds piracy, rising piracy in turn devalues ownership. Anyone with an internet connection can rapidly assemble a ‘library’ of books it would have once taken years to build–so why bother building one?”

Well, I’m afraid I’ve come close to crossing the Fair Use boundary.  So do read the rest of this cogent article: The downward spiral of ownership and value. And if you’re still skeptical, read David Carnoy’s masterful article The Rise of the 99-Cent Kindle e-book.

Richard Curtis

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3 Responses to The End of the Affair (with Ownership of Books)

  1. michael says:

    Is ownership important? How is my e-book sitting in my Kindle library that much different than the print book sitting in my local library? Is owning paper important if the content is easily available? Do we really own our books or do they own us?

    I turned to the Kindle when I discovered I was paying a hundred dollars a month to store books. I wanted to re-read “Maltese Falcon” but I could not find any of my three copies lost in a mountain of books. If I can not read it, do I own it or just possess it?

    I have experienced a case where Amazon discovered one of my e-books copyright was in doubt. They removed it from Amazon, my Amazon library, and refunded my money. They also let me decided to keep it on my Kindle or not. If I can decided to keep my e-book, isn’t that ownership?

  2. jap says:

    Are E-Reads books DRM’ed? Is your ebooks license first-sale-doctrine-alike? (can I resell an ebook I have bought from you?)

    A pirated copy is not restricted. Has it higher value than a sold one?

    Self-published writers are happy of selling at 99 cents. Soon they will be happy of selling at 9 cents. Why should I buy a $9.99 ebook?

  3. Alan says:

    Brilliant illustrations, Richard. I love the last one!

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