Who Owns That Book?

PBS’s Media Shift blog discusses that question, which has been come very complicated in the age of digital books.

Analog books are simple: pay your money and ownership transfers to you.

More importantly, you have the right to resell the copy (love used bookstores!), give it to someone, loan it (the founding principle of libraries), or even rent it (if you can find willing customers).

It’s all part of copyright law and even has a name: the first sale doctrine.

The ruling in Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus was subsequently codified in what is now Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act, which states that “the owner of a particular copy or phono record lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phono record.”

You would think the same principal would apply to digital copies of the same materials.

However, are you the owner of that digital copy of Stephen King or are you leasing the right to use it from the publisher?

Section 109(a) doesn’t define the seemingly simple term “owner” in this context and big publishers see in that an opportunity to apply the concept of pay-per-view (or per read in this case) if they can get away with it.

When software, music, and other media people think they own is added to the mix, the result is a giant copyright mess now being hashed out in the legal system.

As much as I like the iPad, Kindle and similar digital readers, this issue of not being able to easily share a book is the primary reason why I’m reluctant to pay for ebooks from Amazon, Apple and others, and canceled my Audible audiobook account several years back.

It’s also why schools and libraries, not to mention anyone who likes being able to pass along a good read (listen?) to friends and family, need to look very carefully at what they’re actually getting for their money when they decide to go digital.