Why I don’t read ebooks

3 August 2011

It may seem strange to regular readers of It’s not about the books to read that I don’t own an eReader.  It’s not that I’m not open to the idea (although working in a library means I’ve got easy access to a wide range of books every day).  The problem is that I’m not willing to invest in something that is currently so restrictive - simply put, ebook reading devices are currently a bad deal for readers.

Closed shops

Consider the most widely known device - the Kindle.  Kindles are produced by Amazon and operate as an enclosed ebook ecosystem.  Kindles are the only mainstream eBook reading device that does not support the ePub format - meaning any ebook you own that is in the ePub format cannot be read on a Kindle.  At the same time, the .azw format used by Kindles is not understood by any other eReader, with the apparent exception of the obscure ‘Cruz Tablet T301’.

Any commercially sold ebook, regardless of format, is restricted from legal copying by DRM (“Digital rights management”) systems.  This means that you can’t convert your legally purchased ebooks from ePub to .azw, or vice-versa.  Don’t think this is some Amazon-specific evil, either - Apple and Borders use DRM for their ePub books as well, but naturally they use different DRM, so just because it’s ePub doesn’t mean you can read your iPad books on a Kobo.  Of course, it’s entirely possible to remove the DRM restrictions from your ebooks, but this contravenes the licence agreement with your ebook retailer and is, thus, unlawful.

License and registration, please

At this point you are no doubt thinking ‘but that’s absurd, I own the book so I should be able to do what I want with it.”  That’s where you’d be wrong - you don’t own the ebook - you own a license to use the ebook.  This may seem like a small difference, but in fact it is a fundamentally different concept both practically and legally.

Imagine a hardcopy book.  Imagine you go to a shop and pay $9.95 for this book, but at the counter you are asked to sign the Terms and Conditions.  You just want to read your book, so you sign.  After you have read the book your friend asks to borrow it, so you lend it to her.  Then the bookshop calls you and says you’ve violated the terms and conditions - you didn’t actually buy the book, you licensed it, and under the license if you’re not reading it the book has to stay on your bookshelf.  By the way, you’re a test case and they’re suing you in court.  Sound absurd?  It is absurd, but this is exactly how ebooks work.

(*contents may differ from those shown)

In 2005 the Australia-USA free trade agreement came into force.  One of the changes this brought was in the area of copyright law.  The Australian Copyright Act 1968 was amended to lengthen the terms of copyright for many types of material, and some other changes were also made.  The one that concerns us here is that for the first time it became legal for Australians to format-shift and time-shift.  Aussies had, of course, been doing so for years, taping their favourite TV shows to watch later, and making mix-tapes of their favourite LP and CD tracks.  It’s just that now you can’t be arrested for doing it.

The provisions of the Copyright Act 1968 allow owners of material under copyright to make one copy for personal use in a second format  - eg you can scan a book into PDF, or copy a CD onto your laptop.  This entirely sensible provision recognises that if you have bought a copy of something, you shouldn’t be restricted to enjoying it in the original format.  In fact, you are even allowed to lend a copy to a friend or family member - as long as you don’t permanently transfer the copy or the original.  So there should be nothing that stops ebook owners from legally converting Kindle ebooks to ePub format.  There is, however, an exception - if you are licensed to use the material, rather than the owner of a copy, these provisions do not apply.

So we find ourselves in the ridiculous situation where an ebook is deliberately bound to a proprietary, patented, device and licensed for use only on that device.  It cannot be on-sold, loaned (except under certain, onerous, conditions under particular licenses) or otherwise transfered.  The rights enshrined by an Act of Parliament to make copies for personal use do not apply.  This is something, but it’s not a book.

Unfair use

Whilst copyright owners have previously relied upon powerful lobbying to keep extending the length of copyright from the original 14 years plus another 14 on application, to life of the author plus 70 years, eBook vendors have used a sneakier strategy.  Essentially contract law and patents have been used to circumvent the fair use provisions in copyright laws around the world.  Fair use provisions are what allows students to photocopy or, increasingly, scan a few pages or a chapter from a book they are using as part of their studies.  It is the bedrock of higher education and the transfer of knowledge.  Current practices by ebook vendors threaten this legal right, however, by binding texts to licenses and device patents which explicitly over-ride readers’ fair use rights.  Because the ebooks are licensed, readers are not allowed to make a copy of a few pages for a fellow student.

So this is why I don’t buy ebooks - it’s actually impossible.  Until such time as I can buy ebooks for a reasonable price (something I haven’t touched on here, but suffice to say they are invariably grossly overpriced), and actually own the book with all attendant rights under Australian law, I’m not interested.  What we’re seeing at the moment is not just a struggle for market supremacy between Apple, Amazon and the rest - it’s an attempted coup using the weapons of contract law and fancy apps.  Governments, and indeed reading citizens, don’t seem to have realised what is happening.  It is up to those who understand and value our current rights over reading and educational material - librarians, educators and (small d) democrats - to speak out.