Friday, August 05, 2011

Holding Back the Tide of E-books

I love my Kindle. Before my recent trip to Spain, I loaded it up with classics I had been meaning to read for years--all for free. I didn't have to lug books around in my luggage, and the Kindle is small and light enough that I could carry it in my purse; I was never without reading material, a big deal for me. A bonus was that I was able to check my email on it; the Kindle wasn't designed as an email reader, but it worked and saved me from having to hang out in sketchy Internet cafes and pay to check my email. You haven't lived until you've been the only woman (and the only person over twenty-five) in an Internet cafe deep in the bowels of Tunisia, but that's another story. Actually, the Kindle works well enough to read email, but it's not particularly well suited to sending email messages. It can be done, but it's awkward.

This background explains my bewilderment when I came across an article in which "free software guru" and provocateur Richard Stallman is quoted as saying that "e-books are 'a step backward from printed books.'" He makes his case in a one-page comparison between printed books and Amazon e-books (he calls them "fairly typical"). With printed books, you buy them anonymously; after that, you own them without any restrictions on reproducing them (except, of course, those imposed by copyright law), you can lend them, you don't need proprietary technology to read them, and no one can take them away from you. With e-books, however, the "purchase" is not anonymous. Your use is governed by a restrictive license, and you can lend the book only in the most limited sense. Proprietary technology is required to read the e-book, and DRM prevents copying. Vendors can "remotely delete the ebook using a back door. It used this back door in 2009 to delete thousands of copies of George Orwell's 1984."

Stallman proposes that we "reject ebooks that deny our freedom. The ebooks companies say denying our traditional freedoms is necessary to continue to pay authors." In response, Stallman puts forth two ways in which we could compensate authors while legalizing sharing of intellectual property: 1.) we could "distribute tax funds to authors based on the cube root of each author's popularity"; or 2.) we could "design players so users can send authors anonymous voluntary payments." How realistic are these proposals? The current anti-tax, anti-big-government political climate would seem to argue against use of tax funds to compensate authors. And it's naive to think that authors could make a living from voluntary payments. I agree with Stallman that e-books are more restrictive than they need to be, but I don't think his arguments against e-books are going to resonate with most consumers. In fact, the popularity of e-books is growing. E-book sales totaled $164.1 million in January-February 2011, an increase of almost 170 percent compared to the same months in 2010. Stallman's campaign against e-books will probably be as successful as King Canute's attempts to hold back the tide, as shown in the illustration accompanying this post.


Betsy McKenzie said...

I don't know if it meets Stallman's criteria... but there is a less restrictive alternative e-reader platform. I waited for quite a while for it to come out. Blio is finally available. It can be used on any electronic device (except, I suppose, those like Kindle, with a proprietary system). But you can use it on an iPhone or Android or your laptop or desktop or Blackberry or whatever little device or large one you want to use to read an e-book. They sell e-books, and, like you, I have also downloaded books that have entered the public domain to read.

Because they are not trying to restrict the number of readers who can use a book they sell for Blio, I don't think they are collecting the sort of data that is collected when you buy a book for Kindle. But I guess in this day and age, you never know.

Marie S. Newman said...

I don't know. He seems to be a hard core print guy.