There's a crass old joke about how you can never buy beer, just rent it. Who would think that the same joke applies to book buying?
But that's the case in this digital age. Many people who unwrapped iPads, Kindles or Nooks over the holidays might not realize how limited their rights are as their books' "owners."
In fact, they won't be owners at all. They'll be licensees. Unlike the owners of a physical tome, they won't have the unlimited right to lend an e-book, give it away, resell it or leave it to their heirs. If it's bought for their iPad, they won't be able to read it on their Kindle. And if Amazon or other sellers don't like what the buyer has done with it, they can take it back, without warning.
All these restrictions "raise obvious questions about what 'ownership' is," said Dan Gillmor, an expert on digital media at Arizona State University. "The companies that license stuff digitally have made it clear that you own nothing."
Typically, e-book buyers have no idea about these complexities. The rules and limitations are embodied in "terms of service" documents that Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and other sellers bury deep in their websites.
The rules are based on the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with which Congress hoped to balance the rights of copyright holders and content users. "In the digital environment, that's always been the trickiest balance to strike," said Annemarie Bridy, a specialist in intellectual property law at the University of Idaho.
In the nondigital world, copyright ends with the first sale of each copyrighted object. Under the "first sale" doctrine, once you buy a book, it is yours to lend, give away or resell. Copyright is safeguarded by the limitations of physical transfer -- once the book is given or lent, the original buyer no longer has access to it.
In the digital world, however, technology allows infinite copies to be made. One could give away an e-book and still have it to read. Unrestricted transferability becomes a genuine threat to the livelihood of authors, artists and musicians.
So some limitation is sensible. That's usually done through digital rights management, which encodes usage limitations into the digital file.
The question is whether the balance has tipped too far in favor of the booksellers, at the consumers' expense. Some would say yes. In 2009, having learned that it inadvertently had sold unauthorized e-book versions of George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm," Amazon deleted those e-books from buyers' Kindles, without warning.
An uproar followed, and Amazon settled a subsequent lawsuit by promising never to take a book back from a Kindle without the device owner's permission.
But last year, the company unilaterally shut down the access of Linn Jordet Nygaard, a Norwegian Kindle owner, to her library of 43 e-books, for reasons it refused to divulge. Another uproar, and Amazon backed down again, restoring Nygaard's account -- again without explanation. (Amazon would not comment for this story.)
Most e-books are tied to the seller's reading device or apps. Buy a book from Amazon, and you can read it only on a Kindle or Amazon app. Buy it from Apple, and it can be read only on an Apple device.
Moreover, nothing is permanent in the digital world. In fact, digital content can be less permanent than physical books. In libraries you can find volumes that date back hundreds of years and can still be read; but there are digital files that date back only a decade and are unintelligible today.
Nowhere does Amazon, Apple or any other distributor pledge to support its digital formats in perpetuity. Quite the contrary: They typically warn that they can cancel their service at any time, without warning, in a way that could end your access to a lifetime of e-book purchases.
Currently, Amazon keeps your purchased content for free on its own servers for downloading to your Kindles as needed. But there is no promise that this storage will always be free. It is certainly possible that Amazon could someday announce that henceforth there will be a monthly fee to store books.
There are ways to protect your e-books. Programs available on the Web can strip the code from your purchased items. But is that legal? No one is quite sure. Doing so on an item you've bought and want to keep for your own use -- not to make multiple copies for sale -- may not break the law. But distributing software that enables that is illegal.
It should be a top priority for Congress to clear out the murk. The guiding principle should be that an e-book owner's rights and responsibilities parallel those of a codex book owner. Clarify these rules of e-book commerce, and the book market will benefit. The power of electronic booksellers over publishers might be reduced, and consumers would know what they were buying -- and would own what they bought.