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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.


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.

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