Do you own your ebooks?
There was an interesting story about a woman in Norway who had access to her eBooks revoked when her Amazon account was shut down. She had bought a used Kindle from the United Kingdom and transferred her purchases to it. The Kindle developed a problem, and she contacted Amazon to have it replaced, which they agreed to do, as long as the replacement was shipped to the UK. She then received an email saying her account had been closed, saying it had been linked to "another account which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies."
What actually happened is unclear: her subsequent emails to Amazon were met with repeated refusal to answer any questions, so it's not known if the problem was her purchasing books through the UK store though she lived in Norway, or if the previous owner of her used Kindle had done something nefarious, or if it was just a case of mistaken identity. The end result, though, was that she had no access to the 50-something eBooks she bought legally through the Amazon site. After a bunch of hubbub on the internet, her account was eventually reinstated, but the essential questions are still out there.
As a great blog post on the story at Computerworld UK pointed out, this was simply a vivid illustration of how digital books differ from physical books: you don't own an eBook, you hold a license for it - despite what the "buy now" button on the website would imply.
If it makes you feel better, I didn't know that until recently, either.
It's not like "licensing" is a new concept: you license the software you use, and we've been doing that for years. What throws people, I think, is the word "book." We're used to buying books and doing what we want with them: loaning them to a friend, writing in the margins, selling them to a used bookstore when we're done. The fact we can't do any of these things with our licensed copy of an eBook violates our expectations of what a "book" is - our ownership of the book depends on what we do with it, whether or not we follow a set of rules about how, when, and where we can read that book. Libraries are facing the same conundrum that consumers are - but it's compounded by the problem that we have to pay far more for eBooks than traditional books ($47.85 for Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, as opposed to the $9.99 consumer price) and our licenses expire after a certain amount of time or a certain amount of checkouts.
I think we can all agree that publishers should be able to make money. They need to do that to put out more books, and we all want more books. I want more books, anyway. Publishers are obviously trying to come up with a new system for a whole new type of media, while attempting to avoid the piracy that has upended the music industry. That's a fine line to tread - what do you think of the current eBook environment? Are you happy with your options? Let's talk in the comments.
I highly recommend also reading Joanna Cabot's Open Letter to eBook Retailers, which offers a plea for common sense, as well as Cory Doctorow's story on the Norwegian Amazon case and how eBooks have changed the publishing industry.