According to a study conducted by Virtua, 77% of Americans would prefer to own digital items rather than stream them. Between video streaming services, news publication subscriptions, audiobook subscriptions, and eBook subscriptions, Americans are exhausted by recurring fees without retention of a digital item. With the purchase of a physical book, consumers maintain the book until it is damaged or lost. Ownership of the physical book copy belongs to the purchaser of the book. This is not the case for the purchase of digital media.
This issue of ownership is further exacerbated by the possibility of eBooks disappearing from a person’s device if a company wishes. In 2009, Amazon infamously remotely removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from purchasers’ devices. This quiet remote removal perfectly exemplifies this issue of ownership. While the issue was remedied and the books returned, the possibility of remotely removing digital media still exists, meaning that purchasers may lose access to a book they paid for.
If a platform is discontinued or a business goes under, the eBooks supported by the platform will become inaccessible. Unlike a physical book, access to an eBook is dependent on the platform that supports it. Currently, no procedures are in place to preserve the ability to access the book. If the platform disappears, so do the eBooks supported by that platform. In 2019, Microsoft shut down its eBook store, causing all eBooks purchased through its platform to be inaccessible. The retention of an eBook is contingent on the platform remaining intact.
The possibility of removal or disappearance of a purchased eBook reveals that the purchaser does not truly own a copy of the book. The purchase of an eBook is a license to read it, not true ownership. Additionally, purchasers are unable to allow others to borrow their eBook or to resell it as they could with a physical book copy.
“Digital retailers insist that ownership depends on the terms of an end user license agreement (‘EULA’)—that incomprehensible slew of legalese you reflexively click ‘I agree’ to dismiss. Those terms—negotiated by lawyers working for retailers and publishers—determine your rights, not the default entitlements of personal property. And buried within those thousands of words that we all ignore is one consistent message: you don’t own the books you bought; you merely license them. That is to say, you have permission to read them. Until one day, you don’t.”The End of Ownership
Libraries experience problems with digital ownership as well. Libraries cannot retain unlimited access to disperse digital media because it would be financially harmful to the publisher. From the library’s perspective, Libraries must repurchase eBooks after a certain amount of borrows. Libraries are bound to expensive subscriptions to eBooks that must be renewed. Therefore, libraries do not truly own the material they are purchasing.
Over the past few months, lawsuits in several states pertaining to libraries’ purchase and retention of eBooks have arisen. Multiple states are attempting to create legislation requiring publishers to sell eBooks to libraries at a “reasonable” price. Maryland passed legislation requiring this but was overruled in higher court due to copyright issues and constitutional boundaries. To quote the Opinion of the court, “Striking the balance between the critical functions of libraries and the importance of preserving the exclusive rights of copyright holders… is squarely in the province of Congress and not this Court or a state legislature.”
Legislation passed by states on this issue has proven unsuccessful thus far. This allows publishers to ensure that digital books are only borrowed or accessible through subscription, not owned. Libraries are left with soaring eBook subscription prices that must be paid over and over again, instilling fear that they may be unable to access the desired media due to cost.
While many areas of digital media are shifting towards the subscription model, eBooks may be shifting away from it. Recurring fees and the possibility of losing a purchased digital book are concerning to consumers. Individual readers and libraries alike are concerned about the lack of ownership. If you must repurchase your book, do you really own it?
As a publisher, digital ownership must be approached from both a financial and ethical perspective. In a world moving steadily more digital, the thought of not truly owning any purchased digital material is concerning. Americans’ attitudes about digital media are changing, and publishers should adapt their methods to align with consumers. Publishers should consider how to best accommodate the needs and wants of consumers in a way that preserves financial growth.