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You Can’t Copy Your eBooks, and Other FUD

5556997043_2c93729228_bIt is a truth universally acknowledged that (some) publishers hate the problems/benefits of ebooks , namely that (in a strictly technical sense) digital content can be easily copied and shared.

This is why book publishers and other companies sell digital content under restrictive licenses, and wrapped in DRM. They want to restrict what consumers can do so they can continue to artificially create a market, and these policies have become so commonly accepted that some publishers have apparently forgotten that there is any other way to sell ebooks.

Take Melville House, for example. A couple days ago they published a post by Chad Felix which made false and misleading claims about what you can do with an ebook:

This is to say that many of our assumptions about ownership do not apply to digital versions of books. Groskopf provides a simple test based on a study conducted by legal scholars Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Jay Hoofnagle. Groskopf’s test reveals that a majority of consumers are purchasing e-books under various false impressions.

The test challenges several consumer assumptions using the prompt “If I purchase this e-book…”

  • I can copy it for my own use
  • I can resell it
  • I can bequeath it when I die
  • I can give it away as a gift
  • I can lend it to a friend
  • I can put it on all my devices
  • I can keep it indefinitely
  • I own it

In all cases, the answer is “No.” You don’t own that book. You cannot copy it. You cannot resell it. You cannot give it to a friend! You cannot leave it to your children when you die!

At least half of that is simply false.

The above quote ignores, for example, the fact that digital content is inheritable in Delaware. So you can bequeath your ebooks when you die.

The author has also ignored the fact that you can copy a DRM-free ebook, and you can give it away.

You can also lend that ebook, and load it on to all your devices.

And yes, you can keep it indefinitely – or rather, you can keep it so long as you maintain a backup.

The key point where I disagree with Chad Felix, who wrote the post for Melville House (*), is that his post is predicated on the assumption that DRM and restrictive licenses aren’t just common but absolute, and that there is no other way to sell an ebook.

Never mind that the piece assumes that one cannot strip DRM from ebooks (an assertion which is laughably false), and never mind that it ignores public domain ebooks, and never mind that it overlooks CC-licensed and other open source content – Felix’s assumption is simply not true.

I buy ebooks from Humble Bundle, Baen Books, O’Reilly Media, and other retailers who do not use DRM, and I have downloaded ebooks from Project Gutenberg. I have copied, loaned, shared, and gifted the ebooks. I load them on all my devices. I intend to keep the ebooks indefinitely, and when I die I will bequeath them.

To deny the reality of what can be done with ebooks, and what is done with ebooks on a daily basis, is to close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears. It won’t make the facts go away, no matter how much one might wish it were so.

P.S. To be fair to Chad Felix, he was simply reiterating a point made in a post on Quartz, so it’s not like he came up with FUD on his own. On the other hand, he is the Manager of Direct Sales and Library Marketing at Melville House, so he should know better.

image by sleekadesigns

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DavidW October 6, 2016 um 11:51 am

I disagree with your supposed debunking of that article. Most ebooks are not DRM free, and in most cases he is correct in stating that we don’t have any of those rights.

If you have to strip the DRM off of an ebook to own it (which is illegal) then you don’t actually own it. That is like saying that you own a library book because you refuse to return it.

I don’t even see why you have a problem with that article. It’s a call to action to discontinue DRM on ebooks for basic consumer rights. Are you against that?

When Tor made their ebooks DRM free I thought it was the beginning of a revolution. Sadly it was not. Most publishers did not follow suit.

Nate Hoffelder October 6, 2016 um 12:01 pm

He stated absolutes. His statements, as written, are false.

I don’t even see why you have a problem with that article. It’s a call to action to discontinue DRM on ebooks for basic consumer rights. Are you against that?

I will go read the article again, but I don’t think DRM is mentioned once. The piece strictly covered ownership, and conveyed misleading and false claims.

Edit: yeah, my previous conclusion stands. The piece never mentions DRM and is based on false assumptions.

John Wilker October 6, 2016 um 12:04 pm

While FUD is usually never good, I’d argue his post (am only taking what you copied in, haven’t read it yet) is legitimate in prompting conversations and I’d hope outrage. While you can debunk some of his points with very, very specific "well actually’s" he’s mostly correct. My wife can’t strip DRM, we don’t live in Delaware, DRM while not absolute is certainly the rule, not the exception, unless you’re content to only read books published 100+ years ago, or books published by indie authors or (didn’t know this) technical books by O’Reilly LOL. In the Amazon eco-system you can loan a book (only certain ones) only IIRC twice ever, for 14 days each, that’s hardly "you can lend any book any time"

His point I’d hope is that mainstream ebook use is hugely crippled and anti consumer, and consumers should be aware, and should be outraged. Unless his point was just "Buy dead tree books" then whatever, I’m with you 🙂

I agree that it’s FUD and his post should have made the points you do, but he’s not wrong.

Chris Meadows October 6, 2016 um 12:34 pm

The post might make more sense if you sprinkled in a healthy dose of "legally". Sure, you can technically do a lot of those things, especially if you’re buying from a permissive publisher that doesn’t incorporate DRM…but do you have the legal right to do those things? Generally not. Just because you buy a DRM-free e-book from Baen or the Humble Bundle, are you legally entitled to give a copy of it to a friend? No, not really. (A lot of people do anyway, of course, and Baen seems to be fairly easy with that as long as it’s not on a major scale, but by the letter of the law, it’s still not strictly legal.)

(There are exceptions to many of those things, such as the right to back up your purchases, time-shift, or space-shift, but some of those are disputed or only implied and have never been fully adjudicated by the courts, and would be wandering fairly far afield into the weeds for the purposes of the original post.)

Why does he elide all that stuff? Well, you need only look at the byline for the reason:

Chad Felix is the Manager of Direct Sales and Library Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.

He’s an employee of the publisher. You think he’s going to tell people that it’s possible to do these things illegally? His paycheck depends on people paying for stuff. Hence, to him, only things that are legally possible need even be mentioned–and stuff that’s against the law can’t be done.

Marion Gropen October 6, 2016 um 1:20 pm

There is a difference between two definitions of "can." In one, you’re talking about what is physically possible and in the other, about what is ethically or legally possible.

The fact that a book has no DRM does not give you the legal or ethical right to share it, etc.

Given that the right of first sale gives you the right to re-sell the physical object, but not to make copies, I would strongly suggest that you don’t have the legal right to re-sell or give away your ebook, either. In both cases, the act of transferring the ebook actually creates new copies. In neither case is there any way to ensure that you don’t keep your own copy and continue using it.

I’m not sure which definition of "can" the blogger was using, but perhaps he was using the legal ones. In that case, he’s right. You can’t do many of the things he lists.

Fjtorres October 6, 2016 um 3:00 pm

But every one of those has legal exceptions and fairly common ones.
It’s not just out-of-copyright material that can be gifted or loaned; there is a lot of creative commons material that allows is.

There are also a whole lot of publishers who don’t bother with DRM.

The main thing to bear on mind is the source of the article: Melville House. They are not exactly known for nuanced, digital friendly, or consumer friendly positions.

Robert Nagle August 4, 2017 um 11:46 pm

The problem is that Amazon, Apple all do end-to-end DRM, and it’s nontrivial to set up your own store where you can deliver DRM-free stuff. That’s why I am amazed that more publishers aren’t showing active support for, which lets you distribute both to the major booksellers AND allows you to download the file itself. Please note: Melville House does sell ebooks directly (and DRM-free).

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