You own your device. Who owns your books?

The thing about the ebook is that it empowers the reader, right? It may one day enable mash ups and guerilla edits, it already allows readers to reach out to one another via networked comments. It will blur the boundaries between writer and reader.

But there’s another way of looking at this. Large software and hardware companies have long been unhappy with the control users have over their computers. In the nineties a computer user saw a computer as a space she owned and onto which she chose to install software. One consequence of the new always-online cloud-oriented market (as spearheaded by the rise of tablets and smart phones) is that corporations exert ever more control over your desktop or palmtop environment. It’s still possible to install software on your iPhone that doesn’t originate from the App Store, but Apple make it very hard. What was a right is now a near-crime. Windows CEO Steve Ballmer compared open source software to cancer over a decade ago. Partly this was a reference to the nature of some open source licences, but there’s a strong element of distaste there for a movement which militantly places users in control of both their software and hardware.

At present, ebooks are pretty standalone things. They are documents. And, DRM notwithstanding, it is possible to make physical copies of any books you purchase. Possible, but not necessarily legal. In fact it looks as if buying an ebook is actually more like a lease arrangement. I can’t lend you an ebook, I can’t leave my book collection to my children, and if Amazon take against me they can recall my Kindle library at will. Even if one might theoretically route around this in the short term, the dynamic elements of texts will probably become more important in future. Or book distributors might take a leaf from the games industry and require some kind of network key for book access. Increasingly the soul of a book may move away from the downloaded document and inhere in the gateway. This would centralise power even further in the hands of the distributor (that’s people like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google and not the publishers, though these distinctions may change over time).

Microsoft have been interested in the ebook market forever. I was working at a magazine in the nineties when they pitched a plan at boardroom level. They claimed people would be downloading books at 7/11 stores Real Soon Now (they were still in pretty heavy internet denial at the time), and Microsoft would own the distribution system. If the rumours are correct, Microsoft are now positioning themselves to remove the Nook reader from the market and leverage its digital content.

So perhaps we’re seeing companies taking rival devices out of circulation and consolidating digital marketplaces. At the same time the consumer’s dependence upon distributors for continuing access to books continues to grow. I wonder who benefits.


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