Licensed to Read?

In the modern world, it sometimes seems that everything we might want to do is regulated and controlled, and that we need a license issued by some authority to perform a given activity. Yet at the same time, each time that happens, we may suffer a loss of freedom, to a greater or lesser extent, and so when an activity that was previously unregulated becomes controlled and requires a license, we should ask questions about why that’s happening, and whether we are willing to accept that regulation.

Some regulations make a great deal of sense, in our busy society where we all have to live together one way or another, with limited space and resources, and where we inevitably affect each other. So since I am not an anarchist or such an extreme libertarian as to demand that nothing should be regulated, I accept that there are times when this makes sense, including statutory licensing and control on various activities we might undertake.

An example is driver licensing; I have to get a license before I can legally drive, and it can be taken away from me if I no longer merit it; this makes a great deal of sense to me, as getting into a vehicle, a tonne or more in weight, and hurtling around the roads at speeds of easily 50 to 70 mph (since I respect the rule of law, I try to stick to 70 as a maximum until and unless the law changes e.g. to raise that to 80 mph). Similarly, I can see the argument for vehicle licensing, for a few reasons even if not quite so compelling as driver licensing.

Another kind of license we need is to legally watch television in the UK , which you have to pay for, GBP 145.50 per year at present (2011). There was an argument for it once, when not everyone had a television, and by the nature of the technology used analogue terrestrial broadcasts were necessarily available to anyone with an aerial and a set, so the broadcast become a public good in economic parlance, both non-rival and non-excludable. Moreover, there was only one public broadcaster, the BBC, and so no choice for the viewer or listener of which TV or radio output provider they wished to use.

This has all changed now, of course; almost all of us (except a very few people who have chosen to step back from the technology), now have a television and therefore must pay a television license. This makes it effectively a flat tax at household level, nearly a poll tax (for some people who live in a house in multi-occupancy, it is a poll tax. Quite an imposition, that hits people such as students or unemployed single people who are least able to afford it hardest, enforced in a way that has similarities with criminal inspection. Worse, since access to television is now so commonplace, giving up the struggle against the inspectors, and doing without TV, means losing the freedom to listen by receiving public service broadcasting, so it’s becoming a limitation on the free accessibility of speech.

The stereotypical tabloid image that comes to mind is of a family living on benefits, but able to expect e.g. access to Sky Sports as a basic necessity; I do not propose anything like that. We should, however, review whether TV licensing still makes sense in today’s world; personally I like the BBC very much, and want to see public service broadcasting in this country continue and be available free-to-air to the widest audience.

One way, perhaps, would be to abolish the TV license, eliminating all the effort and resource put into managing that and sending out inspectors to peek into people’s bedrooms, and instead fund the BBC directly from taxpayer grant (this is what happens in Australia). What level of funding is appropriate would be a political decision, that our elected representatives should take the time to argue over and come to a suitable decision that works for all of us.

This leads on to the main subject of this post, the way we read books. As a voracious reader, I can often get through 3 or 4 books a week, fiction or non-fiction, and until recently I only really read physical books. Now I have an Android tablet, and though the technology I’m using is not quite there yet, it has passed the point of affordability and usability making it possible to prefer e-books to physical books; it’s also clear from the rate of advancing technology (e-ink displays and devices such as the Kindle) that the adoption of e-readers will only explode from here, just as the adoption of devices such as mobile phones and digital cameras did. And which, along the way, made communication and photography far more widely accessible to people in our society.

We might hope that e-books could also make our literature, knowledge, and culture more accessible than ever before as well. However, this may not be the case, and it’s not the device technology that is holding us back, but the social and legal framework around the way we use, share, and distribute information.

Last week I bought some paper books; that’s strange, you might say, since I have an e-reader that’s adequately usable, and favour e-books in some ways. So why did I do that?

The books were The Big Bang (Simon Singh), The Ancestor’s Tale (Richard Dawkins), and Snuff (Terry Pratchett). Some of these I could have got as e-books, e.g. from Amazon, but when I actually look at doing so, I find the issues start, and I either buy the physical book, even if I don’t actually want several half-bricks of paper to carry around with me, or I don’t buy anything, or I find similar but more convenient e-books from other authors and on-line vendors.

The first issue is that I only found them for the Kindle; which could be OK, as the Kindle device is technically excellent as an e-reader, except that I don’t want a Kindle as well as my tablet; for now I only want one such device, and the one I have is “good enough” that I expect I’ll use it for months and years to come; then at some point I will replace with the best available/reasonably priced alternative, whatever that might be.

There is a Kindle application for Android; but… again that’s not what I want, a Kindle application for Android. I am presently using CoolReader to read books on my tablet, and I like it very much, and want to continue using it. More to the point, I want to be able to use whatever e-reader I want, and I might switch to something other than CoolReader in future, on my present device or on future devices.

The Kindle or the equivalent application is required because the vendor/publisher wish to enforce restrictions on what I can do with the books once they are on my device; this observation is leading towards the title of this essay. If it were a physical book, it would be rather as though the publisher required that I see the words only using special approved reading lights, and only store it on special approved shelves, each of which remain in their control. That type of restriction (as well as requiring magic!) would be unconscionable with physical books, and renders e-books inferior to physical books where that can never be the case, even if otherwise the e-books would be preferable.

The next issue, after these hurdles, is the price; I bought two of books either in Waterstones, and one from an event where the author was speaking; the comparative prices I paid and could have paid are shown below:

Book Paper price Kindle price Percentage of paper price
The Big Bang GBP 7.69 (paperback) Not available Not available
The Ancestor’s Tale GBP 6.99 (paperback) GBP 5.99 85.7 %
Snuff GBP 9.49 (hardback) GBP 5.59 58.9 %
Snuff GBP 5.68 (paperback) GBP 5.59 98.4 %

Note that we need to compare to the prices that we would actually pay, not the listed RRP. As with any discounting like this, the supposed saving is entirely notional if that’s not what people pay. The Net Book Agreement is history, and even in bookstores it’s usual to take advantage of 3-for-2 and other special offers (I paid GBP10.99 for my hardback copy of Snuff in Waterstones, not GBP18.99).

The prices being quoted for the e-book are outrageous, especially given the restrictions already mentioned. The publishing and retail system are able to put a physical, hefty book into my hand for the prices shown, as well as provide enough of a margin to fund the original writing, editing, and proof-reading of the books(if this wasn’t so, across all of the books produced, they would not still be in business). And they want to charge me 85% to 95% or more of that for an e-book which will be downloaded over the ether, with none of the physical printing or other overheads and margins!?

Not only that, but they want to impose restrictions on how I use it? This is again a step backward from a physical book, as I used to get many books from libraries, charity shops, swap bookshelves, where half the fun is the serendipity of finding something unexpected, and where it’s easy to take a chance on an unknown book, when it’s GBP2.00 for 10 books, or even free from a book crossing shelf. I used to find new authors like that (and often then buy other books in that series or by that author), but with Kindle e-books there is no secondhand market for ebooks and desperately limited options for sharing a book I liked with friends.

When I buy ebooks, I will only ever buy unrestricted books, such as those I regularly purchase from the Baen webscription library. These are provided in nearly every format imaginable (I download them as zipped epub, which is portable and works very well), and the publisher does not attempt to restrict me in any way in how I enjoy those books or what I do with them.

For all this, I’m very willing to pay a reasonable price; which should still be less than I used to pay for brand new physical books. With Baen I usually pay e.g. about USD30.00 or so for maybe 6 books, often bundled; ideally I get some from an author I already know or a series I’m working through, together with one or two “wild cards” by authors I don’t know, perhaps thrown in with the bundle, or perhaps because the website tells me others who liked similar titles to me also bought it.

Also, I can put the book on any or all devices I want, read it with whatever software I want, now or in the future, and even share it with friends if I want (there is nothing that will stop me doing that, with an open format), whether or not they would have bought it or even bothered to think about downloading it. The implication of that is also that friends might sometimes push a book over to me with a recommendation, by email or instant messenger (books are small in digital files!), and one way or another I get back the same serendipity and freedoms that I had with physical books, but without the limitations of lugging dead trees around with me.

But all this brings me to the title question; do I have to have a license to read a book, in the 21st century? If the Kindle model is ascendant in future, then apparently, yes, and it will be enforced by any e-readers I can get to work with it, and then we are looking at a world rather like that described by Richard Stallman in The Right to Read.

If it is like physical books, then there is no license needed by the reader. When I bought the three books mentioned above, I bought a physical object, which I could do with what I wanted, read how I liked, and subsequently give away or even sell secondhand however I liked. The content remains copyrighted, so I can not legally make and distribute further copies without a license, but to do any of the things mentioned, and to read any other book I acquired secondhand required no license, and no further approval or permission by the publisher or author (this is known in Europe as exhaustion of rights for copyright as well as patents, and in the USA as first sale doctrine).

The ability to share and redistribute purchased books have always been important to the wide dissemination of books and literature, which I hope we will agree is a Good Thing™ for our society; but with e-books no longer tied to a physical medium, sharing like this IS COPYING, by necessity, and restricting copying leads to Stallman’s nightmare dystopia.

So we need a model that still allows sharing, and although the Baen books do still have a copyright notice that says all the usual things, the reality is that’s mostly a holdover from the way things were; they aren’t in practice restricted like that, and I wouldn’t buy them if they were. If I were to resell copies, then I think I’d agree there would be a problem, because that would be a kind of fraud (I would be implying that I was an authorized reseller); but if I share copies on a non-commercial basis, then I don’t believe there’s an issue, and Baen themselves may well gain a new paying customer as a result.

To draw this to a conclusion, I will make a confession, which is that I do possess some unlicensed e-books, and I have read them, and I’d probably pass them on to anyone who might also like them. In the world of The Right to Read this would certainly be a criminal offence; in today’s world it’s certainly unlawful, though more likely to be a civil matter than a crime, and the actual damages are probably negligible.

There are many in the present publishing and media industries who are trying to force ebooks to be “like” physical books were, to maintain their business models and distribution methods the way they worked last century. I say rather that the new electronic formats are not like physical books, and that as a society we must find a new way, just as Baen and other publishers and authors have done, e.g. J.A. Konrath, and it’s likely I’ll be buying from there as well, for unrestricted e-books in a format of my choice, and which I can print and share if I want (see the author’s FAQ).

This is why I am a Pirate, why I will not use a Kindle or purchase restricted formats, and why I will always assert the right to read without anyone’s permission or licensing, and to share with others without ceding control of our devices to publishers and vendors.

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