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On e-books and capitalism

It occurred to me this morning, in light of something someone said yesterday on twitter, to wonder about the anxiety some readers have about ownership of the e-books they buy. It's an anxiety that seems to cross all the boundaries of readers, from those who just buy happily from the big outlets to those who campaign against DRM and those who happily pirate. They are all concerned that they should actually, definitely, irrevocably own those pieces of data and they are anxious that someone -- especially the big companies -- might take it away from them.
Capitalist thinking pervades everything. This anxiety is all about property (even, in some cases, where it's expressed as an anxiety over freedom.) I find this interesting, even more so when you consider that many of these same readers are suspicious of the control exercised by big business, which is a valid concern in socialist terms.
Now, from the perspective of writers, a book or story is the product of their labour and their concerns are around the ways in which this is alienated from them, either by official middlemen or by unofficial ones. This makes perfect sense to me: workers need to eat, and in capitalist societies, they are dependent of the product for this, either directly or indirectly.
But the reader anxiety -- 'I paid for this, so I must own it forever' -- strikes me as both symptomatic of the pervasiveness of capitalist thinking and as slightly illogical, especially when it's on the part of those campaigning against big business. There's a disconnect in the thinking, there, somehow, because the radical ideas are underpinned by a deep-rooted attachment to, and anxiety over ownership. Indeed, on some level, the desire for freedom from DRM -- which I share, btw -- is closely entangled with the same desire for control over a perceived piece of property as fuels the supporters and inventors of DRM, though on an individual rather than a company level.

Capitalist thinking infects everything.
For the record, I discover I don't have a deep attachment to owning e-books. Most of those I buy I read once. In my head they're rather like library books. I don't know why this is. I need to think about that more, clearly.


( 54 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 8th, 2013 09:52 am (UTC)
I bought an e-book reader just last month, mainly to make it easier to read the Hugo nominees I get sent. Easier than reading on my netbook, which is what I did last year. I bought the cheapest Nook reader and what I find interesting is stuff I buy from Nook, I can't copy to my computer (whereas I can copy stuff from my computer to my reader). I've been using an iPod for some years now, and there, music you download from iStore is copied to your computer, and you can back it up and all the other stuff you expect to do with files. (Really, I want the equivalent of ripping a CD - insert a paper book in a slot in my computer and you get a file you can transfer to your reader in a few minutes, and preferably not the Vernor Vinge method.)

So, so far I've only purchased one e-book and I've as yet no idea how many I might buy in the future. However, I have been investigating things like Gutenberg and found myself reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Jul. 8th, 2013 09:56 am (UTC)
I think I mainly think of my e-reader as a way to take lots of books with me when I go away, and yes, a way to access big heavy old books like Gibbon. I don't buy books I know I'll want to have forever and easily accessible in digital form.
Having digital and paper copies of certain books is useful, I can see, too.
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:03 am (UTC)
Its difficult to extricate oneself from unexamined assumptions and beliefs. (This dovetails with a conversation I was involved in regarding Patriarchy at Convergence). Capitalism is similar.
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:10 am (UTC)
It is. As I said, what interested me about this was that it is so often expressed by people who identify as radical.
Historians. We analyse everything!
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:04 am (UTC)
I've been reading ebooks since 1997 or thereabouts.

I have been burned -- twice -- by ebook storefronts which switched off the DRM servers when they went bust/were absorbed by someone else with an incompatible platform. At this point, a book I'd paid them for became inaccessible and no longer readable.

For me, ebooks are more like paperbacks than library books: while 90% of the time I don't re-read them, I like to know that I have the ability to do so without having to pay for them all over again.
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:13 am (UTC)
That makes sense. I think I don't buy books I think I'll want to keep as e-books, because they don't somehow register as real with me. Or something.
Also, my experience has been that books are fairly easily to replace. The only ones I really hang on to are some of my academic books -- ones that are long out of print and hard to find secondhand -- and particular books with specific associations (usually gifts). I'm aware I may well be an outlier on this.
(no subject) - autopope - Jul. 8th, 2013 11:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 8th, 2013 12:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:14 am (UTC)
I don't agree with this at all; part of the issue with "ownership" includes the right to lend and the right to give away and the right to buy secondhand.

Now unless you believe that public lending libraries, friends lending books to each other and people having the delights of poking about second-hand bookshops and finding long-neglected treasures there are also aspects of "capitalist thinking" surely at least some of the concerns about e-books, and, in particular the control model e-book publishers are promoting with the combination of aggressive DRM and the lease model is that some of the collaborative aspects of loving books are being privatised.*

In the same way as I'm highly reluctant to buy "Horrible Histories" given the author's stated opposition to public lending libraries, so I won't buy DRM'ed content because in the first place I object to the presumption from someone who wants my money that I'm an unprincipled criminal and, secondly, I object to being told that I can only read a work I have acquired the right to read on the device I acquired it on, so that if I suddenly acquire a new and better device suddenly all my books have to be bought again. Being made to pay over and over for the same content by reason of a quirk of technology in the platform is what I'd call aggressively capitalist thinking.

*I think we are going through the equivalent of the enclosures in terms of previously commonly held intellectual capital being acquired and fenced off by large corporations
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:25 am (UTC)
Firstly, I think you're right about the enclosures-type thing.
I don't regard libraries as aspects of capitalist thinking: they're co-operative and built on ideas of access for all. Nor do I find the pleasure derived from book-hunting suspect in that way. And I don't support DRM, for all sorts of reasons. It is, as you say, aggressively capitalist.
On the other hand, I'm less that lending/hunting 2ndhand etc are precisely 'rights'. Or at least not in the sense of human rights, anyway. They're side-effects of the system we have and they're positive ones which I like: I love to give books to people.
I think what I'm getting at it something to do with the way we, as a culture, relate to things: we have been trained to consume and to regard things as commodities separate in some ways from the value they represent. For me, the inherent value in a book is the pleasure derived from reading it, the information and analysis it contains, the space in occupies in the conversation over the human condition, more than the actual physical book. Those aspects can't be taken from me (although I agree it's extremely irritating if I want to check something or reread something and it's not there). But I'm not *outraged* by having to hunt for a library copy or a 2ndhand copy, which some people seem to be.
Does that make sense? This isn't something I believe everyone should think. It's just something I wondered about.
(no subject) - penguineggs - Jul. 8th, 2013 10:41 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 8th, 2013 12:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heleninwales - Jul. 8th, 2013 04:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - al_zorra - Jul. 8th, 2013 04:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 8th, 2013 06:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - penguineggs - Jul. 8th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:18 am (UTC)
Different thoughts.
I have two children now aged 13 and 15. Firstly when they were kids I would read novels to them, particularly ones with artwork although format is a slightly different topic than your thread here.

I am now a fully fledged Kindle/Ebook/Pdf reader but still buy hard copy books, so I am a mixed media reader.

However there are several books from my teenage years (I am now 42) that I have loaned to my kids. I have no doubt that there is a degree of longevity attached to the relationships I have with the likes of Amazon and I also think they would probably let me loan electronic versions to my kids via some sort of household link up. The thing is though I can't afford e-readers for them, although they do have computers. The only e-readers in the house are my Kindle and my wifes.

I could loan the kids my kindle but currently I find it easier to find a favourite book from my youth on my shelves and let them get stuck in and I never really like the sticky finger kids approach to looking after tek. They also buy new novels themselves.

I am probably just being backward but I think the flexibility in ownership in buying the paper versions of the book back in my youth gave me was a sort of inheritance of intelectual property that can benefit my kids and I can't see that same flexibility and trust in electronic versions. When I die can I pass on my library?

Interestingly in life, it is usually the young kids and youth that move more quickly to adopt new technology leaving old-folk like me behind. However with e-books I feel it is the older generations that have migrated onto the platform and with it being such a new technology the ownership question is still one to be challenged. I feel the same with MP3 music - I have over 1000CD's which my kids can use but could I pass the same inheritance onto them for my MP3 collection or like e-books is there a trust issue.

Jul. 8th, 2013 01:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Different thoughts.
Hi there, nice to meet you.
I share your feelings about paper books. I have a much, much stronger connection to them and I definitely have that sense about being able to transmit them to others so that they go on having use and value. E-books don't satisfy that element at all -- the value they have to me feels ephemeral. I suspect this is why I am so interested in finding out why other people do have that strong sense of ownership. I don't have the trust issue -- in that I just don't trust big companies -- but I understand why others do and I sympathise.
And you are spot on about the problems around lending.
Re: Different thoughts. - inrepose - Jul. 8th, 2013 01:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Different thoughts. - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 8th, 2013 01:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:35 am (UTC)
Your thinking about ebooks is different to my thinking about ebooks. I think of ebooks as being exactly the same as paper books except they take up less space and they're harder to read in the bath, and given the main reason I get rid of books is because I don't have the space to keep them, ebooks appeal because they solve the main problem I have with books. I do worry that if I buy an ebook with DRM then a company will take it away from me, but I don't think that's an anxiety brought on by a desire for property as much as by the fact that companies have a fine track record in doing exactly that, because it's a good way to make even more money. When ebooks cost roughly the same as paper books but I can't lend them to people or read them on a different ereader than I own now, I don't like it. If the ebook is £2 then I'm happier regarding it as a temporary license to read.
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:05 pm (UTC)
I think DRM is deeply damaging and I'd like to see it gone. And I share the suspicion of big companies and how they try to monetarise everything. I'm beginning to see why other people have that sense of ownership, too. Which is one of the reasons I asked. thank you!
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:49 am (UTC)
No real clue
I think part of it is that we still haven't mentally made the transition, not fully. When you bought a physical book, you had a thing you held in your hands, it was tangible and real. (Also fragile, subject to fading, etc...) It was something you could give to others or keep on your shelf, or sell on. Nobody could take it from you easily. And having this physical thing represents the use of money, tat you bought something of value. Which, yes, is totally capitalist. We pursue money so vigorously because society tells us that having money, having things, is worthwhile. We like to be able to show others and convince ourselves we got value for our hard-earned money. And even if we don't like the story... hey, we have a book.

With ebooks... you can't hold it, touch it, it's not tangible. There's no proof of your purchase. If something happens to your e-reader or to the account or server, your book is GONE in a way that a book never could be without a minor catastrophe. And the companies (Amazon, at least?) that not only can they take back the book, they will do if they feel it necessary. In short, you have no real evidence of your purchase. Nothing tangible, anyways.

So we either need to adjust to the idea that there is still worth there, that the worth was in the story all along... or we need to detach our perceptions from the value of the physical.

I can't remember who, but I saw... on Twitter, I think... the comment to the effect that a half-finished ebook doesn't tug at you the way a physical book does, it doesn't sit there, bookmarked or propped open, reproachfully waiting for you to come back. It doesn't impinge on your consciousness the same way. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose. I know I've found it to be true.

On the other hand, I am considering switching more and more to ebooks as I am running out of surfaces to store physical books on...

And no, I don't know what it's mostly men replying. Maybe the women are being more sensible about their net time?
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:07 pm (UTC)
Re: No real clue
Yes! I think you've managed to say what I meant. Thank you.
(And yes on the men thing :-) )
Jul. 8th, 2013 11:09 am (UTC)
The way I figure it:

It's all about expectations. If I 'buy' something, with the expectation that I'll be able to use it as much as I want, when I want, and that changes, then there's a problem.

If I 'rent' access to something, and the time scales and conditions are all explicit, that's fine.

When it comes to big businesses, I think many people are concerned that they're going to receive a worse service, for the same or a higher cost.
Jul. 8th, 2013 12:16 pm (UTC)
Re: 'ownership'
I completely agree with this. If I "Buy" something, or if someone "Sells" it, the "buy" term means something : that I own it, for as long as I manage it properly.

An other thing too, is that if I (buyer) get to keep control of "my" copy, that's one more copy in the wild for the text to be safeguarded for the future.

We can't count on publishers to last forever, we can't count on big company (Amazon, Apple, or any other) to last more than a few centuries (if more than a few years), we can't count on anything for text to really survive (except maybe national libraries, but remember Alexandria ?), but maybe, with SOME duplication, we'll be able to leave something for our grand-grand-grand-grandchildren to remember what WE were, what we thought, and what we were writing/reading.
Re: 'ownership' - clarentine - Jul. 8th, 2013 12:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: 'ownership' - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 8th, 2013 01:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: 'ownership' - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 8th, 2013 01:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 8th, 2013 12:09 pm (UTC)
I still think of e-books as not "real" books, and everything on my Kindle is either out of copyright or was very cheap/free and I wouldn't mind losing it.
And in fact my Kindle screen broke recently, but I can still read the books on my phone (though the screen is too small for that to be really practical) or in my web browser. If DRM had tied them to one device, I'd be a little bit annoyed - but if I had lots of books I'd paid the same price each as a new paperback for, I'd be very annoyed indeed. And DRM can mean there's a risk of the seller changing the allowed uses later.
Most people are happy to rent films without insisting on being able to make their own copy, but if e-books were marketed as being rented not bought, people would compare their prices with (generally free at point of use) library books, not with paper books that they can use as they like.
There's also the argument that DRM doesn't actually work to stop determined pirates, so is wasteful and should be discouraged even if it didn't hinder some legitimate uses of a work.
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, DRM is awful. I don't support it at all.
But yes to the rest. That's how I feel, I think. I tend to value things more in terms of their associations than their cost. In terms of books, I think this is down to having been an academic: books in my field are so expensive (£sometimes £30+ for a paperback) that my views on books pricing are skewed. I don't have a huge income, so I wait for cheap editions anyway, too.
Jul. 8th, 2013 12:28 pm (UTC)
There have been several plans for e-book subscription services, but so far few of them have launched. And the ones that have launched is focused on streaming, and primarily as Apps.

As for libraries, there is very few libraries that accept overseas readers. So I'll keep on buying books :).
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:14 pm (UTC)
I hate the way rights are broken up into pieces, allowing companies to make more profit out of licensing in different regions. It's mainly about profit. But I do like the idea of e-book libraries.
Jul. 8th, 2013 12:30 pm (UTC)
I am a rereader of books. I had rocket ebook readers, which I used until I got my first Kindle two years ago, and was left high and dry when the company abandoned them. I still had the books on my own computer, and I transferred my library over to each new computer. Most of my books were from Baen and Fictionwise, so I didn't lose them. but there were a few that I lost access to.

So I use Calibre and plugins to keep archival copies of all the books I buy.
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:16 pm (UTC)
DRM is a really bad thing and I'm not in favour of it. It's a license for those big companies to make more money and little else.
And I'm sorry you had that experience with Rocket. As I said, for some reason I haven't made that transition to seeing e-books as quite as real as paper ones on some level. It's really interesting hearing how others relate to them. Thank you.
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:20 pm (UTC)
I don't have an e reader and have no plans to get one. Doing what I do for a living I need access to hard copy and I need to own what I research as I annotate and gloss my personal copies (I know, shock horror, but it's been going on since books first were and what amazing archive resources glossed and annotated 17th century tomes are for me! :o)
Jul. 8th, 2013 03:10 pm (UTC)
Oh, I gloss my non-fiction, too. Research books need to be in hard copy.
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:28 pm (UTC)
My concern here is fraud.

When I buy something, I (foolishly?) imagine that I've bought it, particularly if the vendor gives every impression that they're selling it to me.

When the DRM leaps up and bites me, it's evident that I haven't bought the thing at all, all I've bought is the right to use the thing until the whim of the DRM-issuer (or their loss of competence) says otherwise.

So they're claiming to sell me something, while they're doing no such thing. Which is fraud, with which I will not cooperate.

If they said, clearly and distinctly, "we are selling you the opportunity to read a book until we revoke that opportunity, or fail to continue to facilitate it, for a fee" rather than using terms like "buy" or "price", then I'd consider doing business with them But while they don't, they're fraudsters and will not earn my business.

This is not capitalist thinking on my part. It's a wish for consumer protection, in which capitalist thinking plays no part.
Jul. 8th, 2013 01:30 pm (UTC)
By contrast, I'm very happy to buy paper books, or download out-of-copyright material in open formats, and do so all the time.
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 8th, 2013 03:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 8th, 2013 03:15 pm (UTC)
I think it's the prioritization of the idea of property and the huge anxiety it creates that's symptomatic of capitalist thinking, rather than small scale property in itself. As a species, we seem to like to collect things. But this idea that property is somehow almost sacred on all levels... That's the bit I find interesting.
Jul. 8th, 2013 03:11 pm (UTC)
Well, I've been a book addict for the last 43 years (and at the time books were the holders of truth for me, my own version of " Ipse dixit" was " The book said so!" until my parents managed to convince me that *people* write books, and if people can be wrong, books can too).

Since a few years I have transitioned to e-books and now the great majority of my reading is in e-format (in the last 6 months: 1 paper book, 67 e.books).

I am a compulsive re-reader and very short-sighted, the possibility to carry hundreds of books with me and the ability to change the size of the font are a godsend. Much to my surprise I realized quite early after going digital that to me e-books are just as real as physical books (definitely more real tham the new paperback that literally self-destroyed while I was reading it, the ink was coming off the pages as I turned them, the worst experience in my reading life).

I still love books as objects, I collect signed first editions and buy art books and cookbooks in paper, but I read digital.

I strip the DRM (if there's one) and store my e-books on my computer for safekeeping, as others have said it's more a matter of control than ownership.
Jul. 8th, 2013 03:16 pm (UTC)
That makes sense.
I had that attitude -- all truth is in books -- as a child, too.
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