rent v. own: cultural paradigm

One of the things that I’ve been wondering (e.g. in re my last post on serials subscription economics) is how this rent v. own dichotomy for books is going to play out.

Because the fact that e-resources subscriptions are like renting, not like owning, is very salient to librarians, and was not obvious to some of my non-librarian friends — but it will be. Because we are all eBook owners now*, so people are tripping over this issue more and more. The inability to lend his electronic library really bugs my friend John, and the related DRM issues really bug another, famous John.**

This seems to me like a good thing because what we really need is not so much a set of policies as a cultural consensus — what does it mean to purchase, to access, a book? How does intellectual property interact with ownership, copying, access, all those strange things that are constrained differently when property is physical? What do, and what should, we expect in terms of our interactions with electronic resources? Those strike me as questions that can’t be answered inside institutions, can’t be answered until they’re crowdsourced, munched on by the slow machinery of culture until new paradigms emerge.

[*] In point of fact I’m not. Come back to me when there’s something with both eInk and good PDF support, including annotations. Or when you feel like giving me one for free.

[**] Sorry, John-that-I-know. When your robot army crushes the world beneath its overlordly boot, you, too, will be famous.

11 thoughts on “rent v. own: cultural paradigm

  1. Some friends and I were just talking about the ebook thing at brunch two days ago! I am very, very stuck in the cultural paradigm where buying a work of information means you get to dispose of it as you see fit, more or less: read it as much as you want, lend it out to whomever you want, scribble on it, rip all the pages out and reorder them, or paste them to your wall; and if someone decides they want to revoke your privileges to it, they’ll have to come to your house and pry the physical copy from your cold, dead hands.

    Kindles are pretty, but I can’t imagine switching to one for primary use: the cultural distance between me and evanescent insty-mation is just too large. Even if I am in other ways an information, er, “client.”


    1. Though the lack of rights over one’s purchase may be new for books, it’s been the model for music and DVDs. For DVDs, they are getting more strict about public viewings and use by a commercial entity (restaurants, video rental shops). Also, they are extremely intrusive in the region system, whereby each country or region has their own DVDs and players, which can’t be played by another region. This has only gotten worse with Blu-Ray. So, I’m not sure that this will get any better with more competition.


      1. Welcome to the blog!

        I definitely see your point about music. I wonder what sorts of parallels people will draw between that and, say, journals or books?

        I’m less convinced about DVDs — there’s definitely DRM, but if I own a physical DVD, I can lend it to my friends (albeit not my friends who live in Europe), and I keep having the DVD even if the original publisher goes out of business/starts issuing psycho conditions on new releases/what-have-you. But I can see how there’s a slippery slope connecting here to there.


  2. In a way the strange thing here is that two things are confounded that don’t have to be. It is not *necessary* that electronic resources be on a lease rather than purchase model. It seems to me that it would be best for libraries if you could purchase a year’s subscription and save the files, and one backup copy, in your institutional archive. Because libraries have limited shelf space and, let’s face it, a physical copy of the 1910 volume of the American Journal of Insanity is probably not the best way to use that space. For instance.

    I guess it is the economics of the other side that bring these issues together: electronic publishing makes such control practical for the publishers, and so why not turn a meat cow into a dairy cow, so to speak; or conversely, if I am charitable, which I never am, but anyway, electronic resources are much easier to copy wholesale, making loss of revenue a bigger issue for publishers and forcing them to find some way to compensate.


    1. Yeah — I suspect that publishers have been able to set the terms on electronic things however they want because people (in the broader world especially) are unfamiliar with them and because there’s not a ton of competition in the market (for ebooks/ereaders at least). But both of those things are changing. I wonder if that means that people will come to expect more archivability, lending, markup, etc. options for their e-resources…or if everyone will just become used to a leasing/DRMed-to-bits model, and come to accept it. Apply your cynicism to determine where my preferences and expectations, respectively, lie.

      BTW please tell me the American Journal of Insanity is real and was actually published in 1910. (And yes, shelf space is limited and precious.)


      1. Yes. And because I am a nerd, I checked to make sure it really was still published in 1910 before I left the comment ;). Now I think it’s American Journal of Psychiatry or some such. Much more suitable; much less awesome.


  3. I don’t know if you’ll ever get exactly what you want with e-ink and PDF. Theoretically it’s possible, but PDFs are pretty locked into the postscript world, which is not one of variable type sizes or auto-reflowing text. PDF expects that the document will be a certain size and that it won’t ever be used at anything other than that size or shape. (This is why you can’t really add text to a PDF, just change or annotate it) I guess that theoretically you could have a very smart PDF viewer on the device that could handle it, but you’d be much better off just creating the document in EPUB or some other format compared to adding another hack to postscript.


    1. Alas, I don’t control document creation here (as a grad student I run across a lot of PDFs I need to read). I wonder if ereaders will press some other format to become dominant.



      1. I think in the long-run, there will have to be some other format that becomes prevalent. At the least, the disability community will demand it.


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