Not long ago I went to the bookstore and bought some books.
This is how: I found some books I liked on the shelves, brought them to the front counter, and handed the clerk some money. The clerk put my books and a receipt into a bag, and ended the transaction by handing me the bag and saying “Enjoy!”
So that’s what I did. As I left the store, I thought about which book I’d start on the train home, and about all the other things I could do with my new books. I could read them to myself, read out load to my family, lend them out to friends, cite or briefly quote them in my own work, trade them in at the used bookshop, donate them to the local library, bequeath them to my heirs, cut things out from them and post them on my wall, make origami art out of the pages, or lots of other things that neither I nor the bookseller had yet imagined. As long as I didn’t violate copyright or other laws, neither the bookstore, the publisher, nor anyone else had any further say in how I enjoyed the books. They were mine.
I also own a number of books on my computers, but not ones I’ve bought, at least not as ebooks. (They’re all in the public domain, or came bundled with a print edition I bought, or are free authorized digital editions. I don’t do bootlegs.) But I wanted to buy electronic books as well– books I liked that weren’t being offered for free or in bundles; books where I could support the authors and publishers through my purchase.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many ebooks of interest that I could buy– at least not if “buying” means “owning”. Oh, I could call up a store app on my Nook, or go to Amazon online, where they offered me book files in return for some money and my consent to a take-it-or-leave-it agreement. A file I paid for wouldn’t be a book I owned, it would be a file that I licensed under a non-negotiable contract, and I could only do with the file what the vendor, the publisher, and other parties to the agreement decreed I could do. The file itself would be encrypted with “Digital Rights Management” (DRM), that would only allow display by approved programs that carefully controlled whether and how I could read the book. And if those programs stopped working, or decided to revoke my right to read the book, or if I wanted to use the books on some other system, or in some other way they didn’t anticipate and approve of, tough luck for me. (Technically, I could break the encryption, but I would be breaking the law if I did.) And I shouldn’t even think about trying to pass along the book to someone else– unless I was lucky enough to find a title eligible for some very limited lending experiments certain publishers and vendors were trying out. I have books in my home that my grandparents read 100 years ago, but I had little hope my grandchildren would be able to read ebooks like these, at least not legally.
A few places offered DRM-free books for sale, but they tended either to offer titles I preferred to read in print (like the computer books published by O’Reilly), or they didn’t offer many titles of interest to me. I wasn’t going to get into the habit of buying ebooks unless there was a critical mass of titles worth aggregating into a personal library.
So I was thrilled when Tor, a major science fiction publisher and an imprint of one of the Big Six publishing companies, announced that all of their books would soon be sold DRM-free. They weren’t the first SF imprint to take this route– Baen, for instance, has been offering DRM-free titles for years– but Tor had enough authors I liked that I could see myself buying ebooks from them fairly regularly. Tor’s first DRM-free release would be John Scalzi’s Redshirts, a book I’d already been hoping to buy, and which I now decided to buy as an ebook. That would let me try out the new format, and also thank Tor and Scalzi for taking the initiative to let readers just own their books. (And if Tor’s initiative does well, other imprints might follow.)
I originally planned to buy the ebook on its release date. But even when an author and a publisher are ready to go, it can take a while to get the retailers on board. On the day Redshirts came out, many ebook stores delivered DRM-locked files instead of the DRM-free edition readers expected. (Thankfully, Tor offered free exchanges almost right away.) More worrisome to me, though, was that many of the major ebook retailer sites wouldn’t complete a transaction unless I first indicated consent to a “take it or leave it” agreement that appeared to sign away important rights readers normally have to books they buy. Unlike the print books I bought in the bookstore, my enjoyment of the ebooks I got from these sellers would be restricted by their contractual demands, above and beyond the standard constraints of copyright law. DRM or no DRM, the ebooks would not truly be my own if I agreed to those demands.
Eventually, though, I found a retailer that offered what I wanted without any unacceptable strings attached, and I’m now a happy Redshirts ebook owner and reader. I’ll describe my experience buying the book from that retailer, and not buying the book from some better-known retailers, in my next post.