Friday, January 10, 2020

Digital books and ownership rights in the information age

Friday, January 10, 2020

It is interesting how digital books compare to physical books in this electronic age. The rights users have over physical books have often been likened to the rights we may have over currency. For example, just like we can’t make copies of currency, we can’t make copies of a book protected by copyright – but we can trade a book for something else, loan it to someone, give it away as a gift, or resell it. We can own the physical copy of the book itself, even if we don’t own the right to copy it.

Digital books (aka eBooks) on the other hand seem to present a far more complex set of ownership rights. Not only is it the case that users do not have the ability to do many of the above things with digital content, it may actually be the case that they do not “own” the actual digital book either.

In mid-2019, Microsoft announced that it would cease to provide digital books on the Microsoft Store. In accordance with this move, it also said that it would be deleting user’s existing digital book libraries. While users would be refunded for the purchases they had made, one can’t help but imagine that users would still feel a bit frustrated with this forced sort of refund.

And as history repeats itself, this scenario is no stranger to the law. In 2009 (indeed, a whole decade before the Microsoft matter), Amazon had run into some legal troubles for similarly deleting copies of works by George Orwell from customers’ Kindles. After a teenager sued the company (possibly for having been unable to complete his homework), Amazon settled and promised that it wouldn’t delete content from U.S. users’ devices without their permission.

This blurring of the rights associated with digital content has recently gained even more attention with Macmillan Publishers’ stance on libraries and eBooks. As one of the world’s largest publishing companies, it’s interesting to see Macmillan restricting sales of eBooks libraries in order to prevent them from loaning more than a single copy of a digital book to a single reader at one time. This has resulted in lengthy waiting lists for eBooks at many libraries, something some have called a means to restrict certain classes from obtaining new literature.

The reason Macmillan Publishers is likely able to do this is because digital copies of books actually remain under the ownership of the publishing companies, and are usually only licensed to users, libraries or whoever else. Thus, if a publisher, or even a distributor like Microsoft or Amazon, decides to end the licensing agreement, they can.

As one possible way to circumvent this system, many authors are now choosing to bypass publishing houses altogether, and create exclusively digital content for companies like Amazon directly. This however means that certain works will only be available digitally through certain companies. This may result in people having to obtain a plurality of subscriptions, and has been analogized to requiring subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime in order to watch all the shows you love. Perhaps readers will not though, as long as they can still snuggle up at the end of the day to read their favourite works.

If you are wrestling with a digital ownership issue and would like some assistance, please reach out to MBM today and one of our professionals would be happy to assist you.

By: Osman Ismaili

This article is general information only and is not to be taken as legal or professional advice. This article does not create a solicitor-client relationship between you and MBM Intellectual Property Law LLP. If you would like more information about intellectual property, please feel free to reach out to MBM for a free consultation.


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