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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.

Comments

la_marquise_de_
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.
penguineggs
Jul. 8th, 2013 10:41 am (UTC)
Lending/supplying secondhand come from an exhaustion of rights model, which states that once property in something has passed the original manufacturer or rights holder in relation that that item ceases to have the right to control what you do with it. So you can buy a pair of Gok Wan glasses if you are so minded without fearing that he will appear out of nowhere, say "I'd have never let you buy them if I'd known you'd wear them with that outfit", snatch them off your nose and grind them under his heel. You can't enjoy the similar sort of protection from interference with an ebook. Because, technically, an e-book can't be read without creating a transitory copy in your e-reader during the act of reading it becomes something the copyright owner can control under CDPA 1988, because making a copy, even a transitory one, is an act of primary infringement without the licence of the copyright owner, and the copyright owner can put such conditions on that licence as they see fit.

So the ebook model conditions how and by whom it is read, and how value is derived by the reader (you could build in a "not read this 30 days from downloading? Bad luck, pay again" feature and it would be a perfectly valid licence, even if the reader hadn't read the small print and had bought all five in the series and proposed to read them in order.)

So, for me, the "side effect" is attached to the ebook model, because it's a technological side effect being attached to redefine the reader's experience.

And, on the issue of human rights, try article 17(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Gok Wan example I gave above would breach it, because it would be an arbitrary deprivation of property. But ebooks aren't property, so depriving people of the right to enjoy them, on whatever arbitrary basis, becomes A-OK.

Edited at 2013-07-08 10:42 am (UTC)
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 8th, 2013 12:59 pm (UTC)
That makes perfect sense. And it's a useful insight into this, too: thank you.
I wonder if one could create a collectivist model -- a sort of virtual library, available to subscribers (ideally with a low subscription within reach of everyone, and with authors deriving something equivalent to public lending right?).
As I said, I don't like DRM: I'm not a fan of Big Capital at all or of large companies that dominate everything for their own profit. I suppose I'm wondering if there's a stage beyond DRM free, which would open ebooks up to an even wider audience without leaving authors without any income at all.
heleninwales
Jul. 8th, 2013 04:07 pm (UTC)
Some libraries now do lend ebooks. In fact I believe that ours does and I keep meaning to investigate, but haven't managed to get around to it yet. Presumably the authors get the public lending right payment in the same way that they do when a physical book is lent.
al_zorra
Jul. 8th, 2013 04:56 pm (UTC)
Ours does too.

Love, C.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 8th, 2013 06:01 pm (UTC)
I hope so, too!
penguineggs
Jul. 8th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC)
I really hate DRM; Lois McMaster Bujold oddly enough has some really aggressive DRM on some of the stuff she's put out recently and it's definitely something which I find off-putting to the point that whereas I've paid hardback, day of issue prices for her in the past, I'll not spend 1.99 on her DRM'd ebooks.

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