The Ownership Issue: Where do we go from here?
This post was written by Bob Wolven, cochair of the ALA Digital Content and Libraries Working Group. and associate university librarian for bibliographic services and collection development for Columbia University.
I applaud Random House’s model—it’s better than other publishers’—and I hesitate to publicly criticize it for that reason, but simply calling it ownership doesn’t make it so. Random House still controls what you can do with the ebooks it publishes: You can transfer your access to another “authorized [by Random House] wholesaler.” Random House loosely refers to this as moving your collection, but nothing actually moves except the contract—and the future payments! If you want to contract with Douglas County to host your RH books, or build your own platform, forget it. So, the model is still a far cry from what we’ve thought of as owning the book.
But what we’ve thought of as owning a book is also not an appropriate way to think about ebooks. Most individual consumers don’t own the ebooks they’ve purchased in the same way they own print books either. We need new terms, at least until some common understandings develop about ownership as applied to digital objects.
We already have complex concepts of ownership in other areas. I “own” my land in Connecticut, but that doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want with it. (Even without zoning laws!) Part of the land is protected wetland; part is under a 99-year lease to a power company. Part of it is now defined as woodland, giving up future development rights in return for tax breaks. Some of these limitations I’ve agreed to; for others I had no choice. But we can still talk simply about “owning” land, because we understand many of the conditions that may be attached.
So, if we’re going to talk about “owning” ebooks, we’ll need to be clear about what we think that should mean. And analogies to print only get us so far. Suppose ownership includes possession of the electronic file itself. As owner, should I have the right to alter the content by deleting offensive passages? Okay, copyright comes into play, but as an individual I can certainly line out in my print copy passages I don’t like. The point is that ebooks are different from print and will require different understandings of ownership.
Maybe we can take a crack at defining what we want ownership to mean:
- the right to obtain a copy of the digital file, as it existed at time of purchase, with any updates and changes for which we’ve been paying through access fees;
- the right to transfer access to any party willing to accept the conditions in our original purchase agreement, or other conditions acceptable to the seller;
- the right to sell the digital file, or sell our access agreement, to any party willing to accept the conditions in our original purchase agreement.
That’s probably still too loose and incomplete, but may give some idea of the kinds of things we need to say. What do you think of ownership? What types of defining characteristics should DCWG be pursuing?
BOB WOLVEN is cochair of the ALA Digital Content and Libraries Working Group and associate university librarian for bibliographic services and collection development for Columbia University Libraries in New York City.