In which I finally buy an ebook

In my last post, I discussed why I wanted to buy ebooks I could truly own, and my subsequent attempts to buy such a  copy of John Scalzi’s Redshirts from a readers’-rights-friendly retailer.  I initially had a hard time finding an ebook store that fulfilled three basic requirements:

  1. The store must sell a DRM-free copy of the book, in a convenient format.  That eliminated specialized ebook stores that didn’t carry the title at all.  Also, a number of major sites only had DRM-locked versions at first.
  2. The store must make the format and DRM-free status clear. Most mass-market ebooks are still locked down with DRM, and I don’t want to get stuck with that, either for this title or for other titles I might buy.  So the store had to make it clear what I was buying, either by a notation on the book’s catalog page, or by a general policy stating that books they offered were DRM-free.
  3. The store must not require me to agree to give up my rights as a reader under copyright law.  In particular, I would not consent to any terms of sale that significantly limited my rights of fair use or first sale.  Fair use allows me to make copies of copyrighted material under certain conditions, such as quoting and critiquing a small portion in my own work, or making a complete personal copy of a  TV show I’ve received or CD I’ve  bought, for more convenient consumption.  First sale lets me decide how to dispose of a book once I’ve bought it, including giving over the copy of something I’ve already lawfully acquired to someone else.  (First sale rights also let libraries lend out books without having to ask publishers first.)  Each of these rights has limits, and there are still disputes over how far these rights can be applied to digital content.  But I didn’t want to pre-emptively sign away rights that copyright law might give me.

I didn’t think it would be that hard to find a retailer to meet these requirements.  But here’s what I found when I went shopping:

Barnes and Noble: Since we owned a Nook, I first called up the store app on that device.  The ebook was simply marked as a “Nook Book”, with no clear differentation between a DRM-free and a DRM-locked copy.  (The current catalog page for the book now mentions in the overview that it’s being sold without DRM, though  not very prominently.)  I also recalled that to get access to the store in the first place, I had to click through a terms of service agreement.   Reviewing that on the web turned up a clause saying I couldn’t “copy, transfer, sublicense, assign, rent, lease, lend, resell or in any way transfer any rights to all or any portion of the Digital Content to any third party” except under certain explicit, very limited conditions.  In other words, give up first sale rights to anything I bought in the Nook store.  Rather than do that, I moved on to another retailer.

Amazon: There was no clear mention of DRM status on the book’s catalog page initially (even now, I don’t see it there until I click on “show more”).  Anazon uses its own Kindle (mobi) format for its books, so I’d need to convert it to a different format (possibly degrading the layout in the process) or get a Kindle reading program or device. The Kindle License Agreement and Terms of Use limits how I’m allowed to read books they sell, disallows third party transfers except by explicit permission, and in case I missed the point, explicitly states “Digital Content is licensed, not sold”.  No sale here, then.

Google:  Going over to Google Books, I find this book available through Google Play.  The catalog page doesn’t tell me what format it’s in, or whether it has DRM; it instead just asks me to sign in to buy it.  Google then tells me I have to agree to their terms, which again include no third party transfers, before it will give me access to whatever formats it may let me download.  If I read the book online within Google Play itself, its  privacy policy allows it to look over my shoulder to a limited extent while I’m reading.  Google pledges to use this power only for good, but personally I’d prefer to download and keep my reading details to myself in the first place, thanks.

Sony Reader store: Information on format and DRM status is not clear for its books.  Based on Sony’s past history with DRM, there’s no way I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt with the formats they might use.

Independent bookstores: I  also looked into whether I could buy an ebook through one of the independent bookstores I’ve liked shopping in.  Unfortunately, they don’t seem to offer much.  My local indie store doesn’t appear to sell ebooks at all, and Powell’s doesn’t offer seem to offer this title at present.  Independents in the IndeBound ebook program appear to just be referral agents for Google Books.

Diesel eBooks: The slogan “More freedom, more ebooks” seemed promising when I found this site.  Diesel offers both DRM-locked and DRM-free titles, and their catalog pages make it very clear which is which.   Unfortunately, they only offered a DRM-locked version of Redshirts for weeks after it was first released.  However, I recently went back to the site and found they’d switched to the DRM-free version.  Buying that ebook consisted of registering my name and email address, giving them my credit card information, and downloading an EPub file.  No click-through agreements were involved, and when I went over to look at the general terms of use for the site, they basically amounted to “don’t abuse the site, or infringe copyright”.  In short, I gave them money, and they gave me an ebook, and said “Enjoy!”, with no further fuss. That’s the kind of book shopping I like.

So there’s at least one reasonably comprehensive and reader-friendly ebookstore out there.  I’d be happy to hear about others as well.  And I look forward to buying and owning more books, in both print and electronic formats.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
This entry was posted in copyright, formats, online books, reading, science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to In which I finally buy an ebook

  1. Dan Scott says:

    The description for Redshirts on Google Play actually says, and said yesterday: “At the publisher’s request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.” (

    You have to click “More” to see it, and you have to read the description, but it’s there.

    (And, speaking of watching over the shoulder… I have to log in with a WordPress, Twitter, or Facebook account to leave a comment? Okay…)

    • Dan Scott says:

      (off-topic) Oh, looks like OpenID sort-of works here, it’s just a bit broken; had to use a different email address than I normally do. (/off-topic)

  2. Corey says:

    Not sure about you other points or if they sell the kind of books you like to read, but Baen has the DRM-free, format thing down.

    • They do, as I mentioned in my previous post, and I own Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series in DRM-free ebooks thanks to Baen. But I got those bundled with the hardcover edition of Cryoburn, rather than buying them specifically in an ebook transaction.

      There aren’t that many other Baen authors I read regularly, though, so I haven’t had the occasion to buy more ebooks from them. But those who like their authors (or have a special fondness for military SF, the subgenre they’re best known for) might want to check them out.

  3. Pi says:

    Somewhat off topic but tangentially related.. in the United States if I buy a book I understand that I am able to lend it, rent it or sell it. However I’ve always wondered what law or doctrine prevents me from “format shifting” the physical book by digitizing it (which I know can be done for convenient personal use) and then destroying the physical book (or otherwise keeping the book safe to ensure that the physical copy is not used for something else at the same time) and then allowing someone to borrow the digital copy or even renting it?

    • One can make a fair use argument for “format shifting” your own books, though how well it would stand up in court (if it came to that) might vary depending on exactly what you’re doing with the books. HathiTrust just won a case where it was sued for keeping digital copies of copyrighted books for searching, nonconsumptive research, preservation, and access for disabled readers, though. See details at

      The Internet Archive also has a digital book lending program which seems to include in-copyright books, while at the same time collecting a physical archive of as many books as it can. I don’t know for sure if they’re doing lending based on the “format shifting” argument you make above, but those moves would be consistent with that philosophy. (They seem to be limiting the program to books that are out of print, though, or online with special rightsholder arrangement.)

  4. Zack Taylor says:

    What I would like to see is an electronic outlet that provides full disclosure and allows unknown writers to submit books without much if any screening. With modern technology unknown authors could have an opportunity to submit a book to an E-Book store and inform the customer how much of the price is going to the author and how much to the on-line book store. The cost of E-publishing is minimal so just about anyone could probably submit it then they would only have to worry about getting the word out. Some grass roots outlets might promote their favorite books. Authors without attention from the commercial media or prominent placing at big-Box book stores could have a chance. As it stands high profile books are chosen by a small number of people with connections with promotional outlets decide what to promote and what not to. If anyone can submit their books and more people learn that the recommendations by many corporations are, well, frankly, pathetic.

    This could give more opportunity for good authors and enable the customer to know how their money is being spent. There should be no need to reward publishing companies and copyright attorneys when many of the best authors are being shut out or rewarded only if they meet the criteria chosen by corporate CEOs that decide which types of books to promote and which not to. Some of the good authors could even use this as a stepping stone to traditional print publishing by deve4loping a reputation that enables larger sales.

    Also with non-fiction it would be a good idea for many good authors that aren’t primarily concerned with profit to have an opportunity to donate their copyright to the public domain after they receive adequate coverage for their expenses and labor. For example an author like Bill McKibbon author of “Eaarth” or Susan Linn author of “Consuming Kids” who is as concerned about getting an important message out could provide a copy to such an E-Book outlet on the condition that as soon as they collect a certain amount of money their book would be free to all and it would enable people to educate more about protecting the planet and stopping corporate manipulation of children.

  5. JacksonWhite IP Law says:

    Copyright laws on digital media is a firestorm. The ability to replicate and mass distribute at relatively no additional cost is a scary thing for any author or publisher. The internet is such a wild and undeveloped relm that it is hard to enforce the same laws that apply to a physical book.

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