Why Licensing Limits Ebooks

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 25, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

   One year in which traditional books outsells ebooks, and suddenly headlines are announcing, "Books are back," citing a small increase in book sales and a small decline in ebook sales.

   The headlines may be right, but the articles beneath them fail to consider that the reason for any decline may be something that Linux and free software users deal with daily -- licensing and the terms of use.The headlines are based on the figures for book and ebooks in the United Kingdom in 2015. According to the Publishers Association, £2,760,000,000 in physical books were sold in 2015, compared to £2,748,000,000 in ebooks the previous year. By contrast, ebooks in 2015 dropped from £563,000,000 in 2014 to £554,000,000 in 2015, the first time in four years that ebook sales declined.

   A statistician might want to see more figures, in order to judge whether these changes in figures are significant. Others might note that audio books sales doubled in the same year to £10,000,000, which might suggest that ebook readers are not returning to traditional books, but discovering a different medium. However, these facts are barely acknowledged in the reporting.

   Instead, the general response can only be described as celebratory. Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of The Publishers Association, is quoted as saying: "Those who made predictions about the death of the book may have underestimated just how much people love paper." Another article goes even further, with a sub-heading explaining that "only the technodazzled thought [books] would go away."

   Ebook sales, according to Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, were the result of a novelty that has worn off. By contrast, "just buying, handling, giving and talking about a book seems to have caught the magic dust of 'experience'. A book is beauty. A book is a shelf, a wall, a home."

Questioning the Obvious
Jenkins and the others cheering for traditional books might have a point when they talk about novelty wearing off. In my own experience, I began by using ebooks so exclusively that when I read a physical books, I would tap impatiently on the page to turn it. However, gradually, I started dividing my reading almost evenly between books and ebooks.

As for the experience of reading, I have heard arguments about the pleasure of reading physical books countless times, so it is probably an argument with which many would agree. From what I hear, many readers do associate books with childhood or browsing in new or used book stores, a nostalgia that a new technology such as ebooks has hardly had time to generate.

Personally, however, I don't see the point, except in the case of a handful finely made and designed books. As a reader with strong addictive tendencies, what matters to me is the words. Whether they appear on paper or a screen is only relevant to me when clarity becomes an issue.

Just as Christians like to say that a church is its congregation, not its building, what I value is the words, not the medium. From this perspective, seeing books and ebooks as being opposed is a distinction that only matters for sales and marketing. Very likely, though, my view is a minority one.

At any rate, ebooks have advantages that might seem to be at least as attractive as nostalgia, such as bookmarking, the portability of several dozen books, and the ability to enlarge the font to suit the condition of your eyes or the light in your environment.

Although one technology rarely replaces an older technology altogether, ebooks might be predicted to replace physical books in the same way that television replaced radio, and is now being replaced in its turn by viewing from computer screens -- by offering more of the same, and then some. Yet if the recent figures are any indication, that is not happening.
Even assuming that last year was a turning point, the obvious explanations do not seem adequate. Are pleasant associations really enough to explain why physical books are currently holding their own against ebooks? To anyone familiar with free licenses, another explanation seems obvious.

The GPL Analogy
Famously, the Preamble to the GNU General License (GPL) explains: "The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program."

This difference is usually used -- correctly, I think -- to explain the rise and the success of free software. Essentially, it means that, with the exception of using GPL-licensed code in proprietary ways, users can do almost anything else with the code that they could care to do. In effect, the GPL gives users many of the rights that the originator of the code has, often at no cost.

Practically speaking, the rights granted by GPL code are in almost identical to the practical rights that buyers of a physical book have accumulated over the years. The buyers of a book can let a friend borrow it. For years, they have been able to photocopy a book -- a process that, in some countries is legal, because published authors are paid an annual fee as compensation, but which happens regardless of legality. Readers can even modify the book with fan fiction with few chances of being charged with copyright violation so long as they are discrete and do not try to profit from their modifications.
True, free licenses grant these rights, while the buyers of books have simply assumed these rights, taking advantages of changes in technology and attitudes to do what is illegal. However, authors such as Neil Gaiman have learned to tolerate and even encourage such uses, having realized that, counter-intuitively, such actions can actually help sales by becoming word-of-mouth advertising.
By contrast, despite their technological advantages, the majority of ebooks are designed to prevent most of these activities. A minority of ebooks are free-licensed, and unofficial plugins for apps like Calibre allow users to bypass digital restriction management, but, in general, ebook users have none of the everyday advantages that users of physical books take for granted.
For example, ebook users cannot lend a book unless they remove the digital restrictions, or lend their ebook reader as well. Depending on the publisher, readers may not even be able to place separate copies of a title on their phone and their workstation for convenience.

In other words, the technical superiority of ebooks is equaled by their everyday disadvantages. Instead of being an advance over physical books, in many ways they are a step backwards. The technical superiority is enough to give ebooks a strong position in the publishing market, but perhaps not enough to make them replace physical books. Despite being a centuries-old technology, physical books continue to have practical advantages that most ebooks cannot match.

The Laptop Analogy
The difference between traditional books and ebooks is reminiscent of the difference between desktop computers and laptops and mobile devices.

Desktop computers were designed so that individual components could be easily upgraded and replaced.  With a little technical know-how, a desktop user could replace parts as they fail, and never buy a new computer again.

This arrangement seemed to mean a loss of sales of new computers, so laptops, phones, and tablets are tablets were designed with sealed cases. Users may be able to replace the memory in laptops, or use a micro SD card in a tablet, but in general they cannot do repairs. When one piece of hardware fails, the entire machine may need to be replaced.

This practice may have helped sales over the years, but it may also explain why, despite their convenience, laptops and mobile devices have never replaced desktops, despite all the frequent predictions that they will do so any day now.

Similarly, by restricting the actions of users, ebooks have limited their market. Most ebook readers, of course, are not nearly as aware of such matters as the average free software advocate. However, no one needs to be a licensing expert whey they are inconvenienced, and are unable to do simple actions that they have come to expect as a matter of course.

If ebook sales really have started to decline, then perhaps the manufacturers and publishers have only themselves to blame.

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