Hands off, that’s mine!

A man protests Digital Rights Management in Bo...

A man protests Digital Rights Management in Boston, USA as part of the DefectiveByDesign.org campaign of the Free Software Foundation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a saying in England that possession is nine tenths of the law. Today where we live surrounded by consumerism, ownership has become a very important concept. Whether we like it or not, society almost defines us by what we own. Against this backdrop, it seems bizarre that these days, ownership of many things has become a good deal more ephemeral.

My first experience of gainful employment was a paper round. I worked 7 days a week lugging around a paper bag that, at the outset of my round at least, weighed almost as much as I did. The worst day was Sunday where newspapers ballooned to 6 or 7 times the size thanks to all the supplements that came for free. The first thing I did when I got paid was head down to town where I foolishly blew my first week’s wages on some records.

My mum was less than impressed with my new acquisitions. She wanted to know what I was going to do for the rest of the week with no money. To me, the answer was obvious, listen to Dire Straits and Bananarama. I had no money the week before when I didn’t have a paper round, so I didn’t appreciate why it was so bad to have no money this week.

I feel sorry for the poor sod who has inherited my paper round today. Not only are the newspapers twice as big as they were, but when he foolishly blows his wages on music, the chances are that he won’t even own the titles he chooses. He will hand over his hard earned wages to some dot com or another in exchange for a license. OK, so that license will allow him to listen to his music. It won’t, however, allow him to lend his music to his friends. He won’t be able to sell it on, nor will he be able to leave it to his kids. In short, he never owns anything.

I have a number of books, but I have even more in electronic format. Most of these titles are protected by digital rights management software. Because I am a big fan of one particular publisher, more of my titles come from that company than any other. A few years ago, that company decided to exit from the electronic publishing industry, taking all their titles with it.

Suddenly, all my eBooks disappeared. Without apology or refund, the company rescinded my access to those titles I know and love. I checked the license terms and they were quite within their rights to do so. If you are going to put a button labelled “buy now” next to some kind of electronic product or another, then give me what you are advertising. Otherwise, the wording should be changed to “license now temporarily with limited rights”.

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The psychology of ebooks

books

books (Photo credit: brody4)

I enjoy writing. It’s like a new hobby to me and I try to write something whenever I get the opportunity. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I get a new hobby, I spend a lot of time reading about it. I don’t just want to be a writer – I want to be a good writer – so I have read blogs, magazines and articles on how to improve. The one piece of advice that almost all of them contain is that avid writers should read lots of books.

So I have made a concerted effort to read more. Like most budding technologists, I have the ability to read ebooks. I have Kindle installed on every device I have and have a nice little collection of ebooks in my library. This means that these titles are available to me pretty much everywhere.

I also have a big pile of crusty old physical books as well. There are shelves and shelves of them in our house. I regularly buy more of them – typically from the charity shop. Unlike the ebooks, I have to make a conscious choice to carry these books with me if I’m going to read them. So in theory, they are available to me much less often than their electronic equivalents. The odd thing is, my ebook library is littered with unfinished reads, whereas I’ve flown through the last 10 physical books I picked up from the charity shop. How does this make sense?

Either consciously or unconsciously, my preference is to read the physical manifestation of the text rather than the electronic. I do find reading a very emotive, tactile experience. I like the smell of old books. I like well read books from the charity shop because it reassures me on some level that other people have enjoyed that title too.

The physical form factor is important too. I need to feel like I am making progress through the book, so I prefer books with larger text and shorter chapters. I know that the font size can be set in electronic books, but somehow, the effect is not the same. When you are reading a physical book, you can easily see how far you are through by looking a the block of pages read compared to the pages you still have to read. I know that I can see that numerically at the base of my kindle screen, but again – it’s just not the same.

There are a few other downsides too. I can pick up a superb potboiler from the charity shop for 50p, but prices for ebooks seem far too high considering there are no raw materials or distribution costs. Once I have finished my physical book, I can lend it to someone else or even take it back to the charity shop for someone else to enjoy. I can’t do that with my ebooks.

There are good things about electronic books such as the anonymity – nobody knows what you are reading which surely helped the recent success of the 50 Shades trilogy. They are also weightless – apart from the device itself (which many people carry anyway) – each book adds no weight or bulk.

But when it comes to ebooks – colour me a Luddite.