Do readers really own books?

In my last post of February, I answered Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s question ‘Can authors honestly call themselves indie authors when they’re getting 80-100% of their sales from a single retailer?’. In short, my answer was ‘No.’ But writers are only one piece of the puzzle.

My question, for this first post of March, is What about readers?

Online retailers and ebooks have brought readers unprecedented selection when it comes to reading choices. But in other ways, these platforms, both in collaboration and competition with the big publishers, have restricted readers as much as they have writers.

The danger of ebooks

Free software pioneer Richard Stallman summarises a number of issues with ebooks that infringe upon readers’ rights:

  • ebooks are generally not possible to purchase anonymously
  • many platforms restrict sales of some books in some locations
  • often, the user must accept a restrictive usage license
  • many ebooks are sold in a proprietary, secret format
  • devices such as the Kindle can report back to Amazon what readers are reading, their notes, etc.
  • where lending is available, it is restricted. Giving away or selling your copy is not allowed.
  • retailers can remotely delete any ebook from your device through a back door.

This last point in particular begs the question: can you ever really own an ebook?

My answer is (again!) “no”.

Case Study #1: The Orwellian deletion of 1984

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

– George Orwell, 1984

A little over a decade ago, in 2009, Amazon secretly removed copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 from users’ Kindles.

It sounds Orwellian – and it is – but it really happened.

In this particular case, the removal was sparked by a copyright claim. A company which did not own the rights to the long-dead Orwell’s work had made 1984 and Animal Farm available for sale. And when the rights owner contacted Amazon, they not only removed the infringing copies from sale, but quietly deleted all copies from users’ devices and libraries en masse.

It’s clear that Amazon was in a tough position here. And I don’t think many doubt that removing the offending copies from sale was the right thing to do, legally speaking.

But removing books from users’ libraries – even if a refund is offered – caused immediate outrage. As Gizmodo reported, customers quickly pointed out the irony

“that Amazon was deleting copies of a novel about a fascist media state that constantly alters history by changing digital records of what has happened. Amazon’s action flies in the face of what people expect when they purchase a book. Under the “right of first sale” in the U.S., people can do whatever they like with a book after purchasing it, including giving it to a friend or reselling it. There is no option for a bookseller to take that book back once it’s sold.”

However, as Stallman points out, there seems to be no “right of first sale” in practice when it comes to ebooks.

Right up until the week before, Amazon had apparently claimed it would grant users the right to keep a permanent copy of the books they have purchased. But Gizmodo concludes that this would require some technical know-how on the part of the reader:

“No e-book is truly yours unless you can get it off your Kindle and onto your computer – hopefully a computer that isn’t connected to the internet.”

Case Study #2: Microsoft deletes all books sold. Ever.

Just last year, in 2019, ten years after the case above, Microsoft decided to end all sales of books for Windows PCs.

“Big deal,” you might say. “I didn’t even notice.”

Most people probably weren’t aware Microsoft even sold books in the first place. (Which was likely part of the problem). The company announced it was no longer interested in attempting to compete with the three giants, Amazon, Apple and Google.

And so, customers who had purchased ebooks from Microsoft were able to continue using them through the Edge browser for a few months following the announcement, before everything disappeared and users were simply given back their money.

To their credit, Microsoft did offer an additional $25 credit (to your Microsoft account) for any books the user had annotated. But as someone who purchases a whole lot of books, and little in the way of software (especially Microsoft software, as I prefer free software that respects users’ rights like Libre Office) this would be of little solace to me. Especially as I often spend many, many hours annotating my books.

In the past, I’ve been frustrated by losing my annotations by accident on my Boox ereader.

I’d be pretty angry if a company remotely deleted them on purpose.

And that is exactly what happened to at least one student who was reading 1984 in the above case, who ended up suing (and settling) Amazon in a class-action lawsuit over the deletion of the book they’d purchased, which rendered all of the annotations they had made useless.

It’s not just ebooks

The words had escaped him before he knew what he was saying.

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The above case studies of online retailers deleting books is concerning, and may have you running for your local bricks-and-mortar book store (if you have one left) to stock up on paperbacks.

But major authors and publishers have taken unprecedented steps against readers even in the domain of hard copy books.

Case Study #3: Harry Potter and the Court Order of the Phoenix

In 2003, J.K. Rowling and her publisher sought – and received – a groundbreaking injunction against “the person or persons who has or have physical possession of a copy of the said book or any part thereof without the consent of the Claimants”.

What was particularly groundbreaking about this injunction was that, for the first time in British law, it referred to unnamed or even unknown individuals.

While the injunction was an attempt to ensure secrecy in relation to the forthcoming release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it set a worrying precedent – not just for readers, but for everyone a large company might want to control.

Case Study #4: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prints

Two years later, in 2007, a grocery store in Canada accidentally sold several copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince before the official release date. The book’s Canadian publisher obtained an injunction from the Supreme Court of British Columbia to prevent those who had purchased the book from actually reading it.

Yes, you read that right: customers who had legally purchased the book were legally prohibited from reading it – at least until the approved time. As one media lawyer commented, “there is no human right to read,” prompting widespread public debate. As Michael Geist, University of Ottawa Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law, summarised:

“The copyright law claim was particularly puzzling. While copyright law does provide copyright owners with a basket of exclusive rights, the right to prohibit reading is not among them. In fact, copyright law has very little to say about what people can do with a book once they have purchased it.”

The solicitors who formulated the legal arguments for the embargo rebutted this, stating that the innocent purchasers of the book had no more right to read it than if they’d come into the possession of a private diary. Even thought they’d bought it. And even though, unlike a diary, the book was intended for public consumption.

Case Study #5: Harry Potter and the Deathly Discount

Two years later, in 2007, when the seventh and final Harry Potter book was released, something similar happened. Scholastic threatened legal action against two booksellers, Levy Home Entertainment and, for selling copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before its release date.

Fans who had bought copies of the book were not only asked not to read them, but Scholastic went so far as to request that they keep the books “hidden”. In return, customers who agreed not to read the book were given t-shirts and $50 vouchers.

Now, maybe you’re thinking “Some people were asked to wait a few hours or days to read a book they’d bought. And some of them even got free gifts. Who cares?”

And you’d be right. It doesn’t seem like the world’s biggest issue.

But the money thrown about by big publishers to get the kinds of legal outcomes they want impacts all of us.

Remember that worrying precedent I mentioned above? Since the original 2003 injunction, Wikipedia reports that “Harry Potter-style” injunctions have been used against Roma travelers, and by the big pharma company GSK against animal protestors.

So what can readers do?

In my previous post, I directed writers towards the Smashwords Indie Author Manifesto. But you may be surprised to know that there is an Indie Reader Manifesto, too, produced by The IndieReader, and based on Mark Coker’s original.

As indie writers, I believe that we should focus more on writing stories that matter, instead of restricting our readers. That’s why I believe in the Indie Author Manifesto. And as indie readers, I believe that we should support authors who are writing the kinds of books we want to read – often in the face of insane competition. Independent of platform, and independent of publisher.

My 20 Indies in 2020 numerical reading challenge features independently published authors whose books are available on various platforms. Why not join, or create your own? (You can vote or add your own books to the list on Goodreads)

Unchain my heart

Perhaps the most important message to take away from this post is that the issues with ebooks are, by and large, not inherent to ebooks, but are the invention of the companies that profit from them – both platforms and publishers. As Stallman points out, “technologies that could have empowered us are used to chain us instead”.

The very fact that publishers have sought to restrict readers’ access to even the physical books that they have purchased just demonstrates Mark Coker’s point that the battle for freedom of expression predates Amazon and ebooks, and probably even be traced back to the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press.

In my previous post, I identified the big publishers, and mammoth platforms like Amazon as a kind of bottleneck between readers and writers. A ‘monomesazon’ of sorts.

When I started out on my indie publishing journey, I looked around for a platform that would open my work up to the world, rather than closing it down.

Smashwords is the largest independent publishing platform in the US. Let’s see how it deals with the issues Stallman identifies:

  • While you do have to enter your details to purchase a book, readers can download free books anonymously.
  • As far as I’m aware, having used Smashwords in multiple countries, sales are not restricted by location.
  • Readers can purchase DRM-free books on Smashwords.
  • Rather than a single, proprietary format, Smashwords allows authors to offer their readers multiple formats to choose from. (My debut satirical novel Number Eight Crispy Chicken, for example, is available in epub, pdf, lrf, and even mobi formats)
  • Smashwords does not have its own proprietary device, and because it offers so many different formats, readers are not locked into being spied on when they read books downloaded from the site.
  • While readers are discouraged from making unauthorised copies of Smashwords books via a standard warning, there are no technological barriers to prevent readers from transferring ownership if they so desire – much in the same way that you can with a physical book.

Read an Ebook Week

This week is ‘Read an Ebook Week’ (March 1-7, 2020) on Smashwords. You can get some deep discounts on some wonderful books by independent authors.

Including Number Eight Crispy Chicken. Simply enter the code EBW50 to get a whopping 50% off. This is a Smashwords-exclusive deal.

And if you’re a Kindle user, or an Apple or a Google user, or a Nook or a Kobo user, don’t worry. Smashwords has you covered. As mentioned above, I’ve made Number Eight Crispy Chicken available as epub, pdf, and mobi. You’ll find instructions on how to use all of them on your device here.

Have a browse – you might be amazed at what you find. And you’ll be helping make indie authors and indie readers truly independent in the process.

Original image thanks to Rita Toews

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