Andromeda Yelton

Across Divided Networks

Why unglue when you can buy the book? (For starters, you can’t.)

July 4th, 2012 · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

Here’s a question we at Unglue.it get a lot on the interwebs:

Why should readers contribute to make titles in your corpus available with Creative Commons licensing when they can already purchase them, in many cases, at a very low price? (In other words, you don’t need to make them available if they already are available!)

(slightly edited; original here)

It’s a fair question that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what ungluing is for — which makes it our responsibility to better articulate that. (For all this “we” language, I’m writing in my personal blog here and my views are my own, FYI.)

So. Why spend a few bucks on ungluing, when you could spend the same few bucks and own the book, one-click?

You don’t own the ebook

Remember when Amazon deleted a bunch of people’s copies of 1984?

If I buy a paper book, I own it (thanks, first-sale doctrine!). I can scribble in the pages, rip them out, turn them into art. Read the book whenever I want, give it to a friend when I’m done, lend it to as many people as I like (as can libraries, which basically allows them to exist), resell it.

This isn’t true with most electronic books. From the Kindle licensing agreement:

…the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Other Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. The Content Provider may include additional terms for use within its Digital Content.

(emphasis mine)

Lest you think I’m picking on Kindle, there are comparable restrictions in the Barnes & Noble digital content terms of use.

Libraries can’t own the ebook

Five of the Big 6 publishers, collectively responsible for about half the (non-self-published) book market, including many of the best-known current titles, won’t sell ebooks to libraries. (One, Penguin, has just started a limited pilot with the New York Public Library, but to my thinking this is firmly in the “wait and see” camp.)

The other half of the traditional book market comprises a constellation of indies of varying sizes, specialties, and motivations, many of which are interested in selling to libraries, but aren’t always part of standard library ebook distribution chains.

So in short, people who can straightforwardly get their ebooks into libraries often don’t want to, and people who want to, maybe can’t. This is why there are 500 holds on the first copy of that one ebook your public library has through Overdrive. (No, just because it’s electronic doesn’t mean they have the legal right to make 500 copies. That’s what “copyright” means.)

And, of course, even if the library could buy the book, it still wouldn’t own it, just like you don’t, and it would have to navigate license terms that are written for the individual-consumer market and often make no sense in the context of library use cases.

Libraries get sued for letting people use ebooks

While some (myself included) might think that putting ebooks into a course reserve system is a reasonable thing for a library to do, several publishers sued Georgia State for doing this.

Luckily for libraries, Georgia State won on most (not all) counts. But the ruling made some pedagogically reasonable things legally questionable. And part of the reason Georgia State was off the hook was evidence that students don’t actually read the assigned reading, which is not exactly the shield I’d be wanting were I a university. And, frankly, copyright law is more tangled than a Little Italy’s worth of spaghetti; knowing you’re legally in the clear is fraught. Even with the brighter (if problematic) lines in the Georgia State case, can we say chilling effect?

Why ungluing is better

The whole point of a Creative Commons license is to articulate clearly, to everyone, what you can and can’t do with a copyrighted work — with the answer falling mostly (but not entirely!) on the side of “can”. CC licensing removes fear by stipulating that a wide range of uses (including most library and personal uses) are legal. No one will sue you. You don’t have to ask. Have fun!

Those things you can do with a paper book — you know, that you own — are all or nearly all (depending on the license) also totally legit with a CC-licensed ebook. Some things that you can’t do with that paper book, whether for legal or pragmatic reasons, are legit, too. And so are lots of things that are technologically or legally difficult with most ebooks, like read on the device of your choice, in the format of your choice, without DRM.

And, of course, when you buy a book, you’ve bought (…well, licensed) a book. One book. For you. Other people can’t use it until you’re done. Ungluing means everyone who wants one is free — legally free, gratis-free, sometimes even libre-free — to have a copy.

Free as in beer, not as in kittens. But if you’ve read this far, you deserve a kitten. (Flickr user pinguino, CC BY)


So. Why make a book available via ungluing, when it’s already available? Because, in important ways, it’s not. Why unglue the book when you could just own it? Because you can’t. And even if you could, why not give it to the world?

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Melinda

    Very well said, Andromeda. Unglueing books gives all of us a library of free books forever. How cool is that?

    At Budding Reader, we decided to put our first book set, “Cat and Rat”on Unglue.it. By unglueing this book set, we will be able to open source the adaptation of this book set to various cultures, languages and electronic formats so it could be available to children for free, everywhere, indefinitely. We see how unglueing books can help us help more children, more quickly than we ever could otherwise. (Full disclosure: We’d also make a profit more quickly than waiting for royalties to trickle in over time.)

    We’re excited about Unglue.it!

  • Hank Sway

    A very appropriate post for the 4th of July. Ebooks deserve freedom too!