Do you own your ebooks?

It's been an interesting week for eBook news. It's been an interesting year, actually, but this last week has been especially interesting, in that the issue of whether you own the eBooks you buy or not has been placed front and center.

If you're looking for the short version of this story, the answer is "no." For details, read on...

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.

What does it mean that you only license a book? Licenses can be revoked, and because publishers and vendors insist on using proprietary formats and digital rights management, if your license is revoked, you lose access to that book. And it's very easy to violate the terms of your license: most licenses require that only the "registered user" of a device to read any content on that device. If you registered a device for your child or your tech-inept grandparent and they read purchased content on it, you've violated your terms of use. Downloading an eBook for your partner and sharing a device doesn't seem like piracy to me, but they both seem to be treated the same by the user agreement you have to accept to buy eBooks.

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.

Written by nate on November 1, 2012


Carol on November 5, 2012


Fascinating stuff! I have long preferred regular paper books because I can gift them, or regift them, write in them, dogear the pages and all kinds of things that my ebooks don't let me do. I do like ebooks for library books though because I don't want to dogear, write in them, or even loan them to someone else--- they might not get them back in time. So, while I think there's a place for ebooks, I don't think we've got it all figured out yet.


Yeah, moving to ebooks definitely cut down the amount of late fines I pay - it helps when books return themselves!

Anonymous on November 7, 2012


Carol, what you said there in fact seems to be a reason why eBooks are best in the library since you don't feel you own those books anyway, and if you love the book you'll go out and buy a hardcopy of it. i just wish publishers could see it that way!

Anonymous on November 25, 2012



And it goes beyond just the fact that by 'licensing' you have lost control of property you paid for. "They" (who could be a number of entities) could wipe out everything in your licensed library because it is in some 'End User License Agreement' that you clicked through and yet the little guy's recourse for any bad/misbehavior by the publishers is little to non-existent. The Lady in Norway is one example, I remember another case where a student's notes were all a muck after pulled the plug:…

What keeps me away from eBooks, no matter the cheaper price, is the concerns over how the eBooks a person reads, are in fact, reading her back.

Here are 2 pretty good articles on just this topic:…

I would rather enjoy a book I owe, at my leisure, without a contractual agreement that takes away my rights by some arbitrary "authority" supervising what I read while snooping on me.

And for that reason, I will always be a big advocate for Public Libraries and DPL in particular. Lets maintain real books, let people be free of yet another form of control.

Matt on January 8, 2013


It would be one thing if there was an option to buy an ebook, but so far I can't seem to find any options for that, only rent. Its severely irritating that I can loan a hard copy of a book to someone and no one throws a fit, but if its an epub, pdf, or other digital version the companies throw a fit. Ridiculous.

Anonymous on April 9, 2014


To Buy is the operative word. And it ought be withdrawn under the Trade Descriptions Act. Amazon/Kindle and the like are knowingly decieving their clients and customer beliefs. Applied psychology in its most digusting use !

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