Why is copyright on e-books different to that on paper copies?

Why is copyright on e-books seemingly different to that on paper copies? Photo: Chris Ratcliffe

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a thorny issue at the best of times, often used in blunt and punishing ways against those loyal customers who, in effect, are playing by the rules in the first place.

DRM describes various technologies whose purpose is to enforce legal agreements on digital assets. Usually the agreements are copyright-based where DRM limits access to content to authorised users and devices. The most basic example is limiting the listening of a DRM-encumbered song to the original purchasers only, and to not share it with others.

In theory, the validity of a content rights’ holder to ensure that their works are used as intended (artistic control), and that digital copies without approval or compensation are limited, is not really in dispute.

The problem occurs when the technology employed to enforce the rules limits the fair rights of the end user.

Currently all DRM implementations have some anti-consumer side effects. These side effects may include but are not limited to, geo-locking, tracking, device/format restrictions, interference with second-hand sales and fair use.

Last week a mountain was made out of a molehill which brought back into focus how antagonistic both sides have become. US-based e-book lender matching service LendInk was flooded with cease and desist letters from irate authors claiming that the site was a den of piracy.

The hosting provider Medialayer.com, fearing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), took the site offline.

Meanwhile, the authors involved boasted about shutting down a pirate site on kindleboards.com (a large kindle community site).

In reality, LendInk was acting like a book club and allowing members to discover books that they would like to read and introducing them to readers who already had the book. The match could then utilise the lending service provided by Amazon and Barnes & Noble to temporarily lend the book for 14 days. The lending service is legitimately covered by the terms and conditions of both services.

In the fallout, some of the writers, after having this pointed out to them, have apologised.

However, many of the forum posts have been deleted and the whole thing is being covered over. Boasting by the authors will be matched in kind by public humiliation by the crowd.

This kind of us versus them attitude is getting in the way of rational debate about how effective the technological solutions are to what is a very old problem. Just because content is distributed digitally does not mean that a consumer has any less rights.

I love books, physical and electronic. My dog-eared copy of American Gods has been lent out to friends many times. Should I not be able to do the same with my digital edition? I can give away, trade or sell any of the books I have on my shelf without needing my rights managed by the publishers.

I can record myself reading the book aloud so that I can listen to it while I walk without being labelled a thief. I can cut out my favourite pages, reorder them and burn the rest if I so wish. Crossing a regional boundary does not suddenly render my book unreadable. I can borrow a book from a workmate or a bricks and mortar library. These are examples of rights that are not in question with physical copies.

There is no doubt that digitally, copyright infringement is much easier to do on a mass scale. This is the distributor's problem to fix without forcing legitimate users into being powerless pawns.

Copyright infringement, even en masse, is not a new problem. Photocopiers and cameras don’t have limitations on what they can copy forced on them at the technical level.

The LendInk case is an ugly example of when writers and their readers wage war against each other for no real reason. Content creators have to be careful about becoming knee-jerk copyright vigilantes, otherwise it adds credibility to so-called activist copyright infringers who claim they are protecting consumer rights.

Too often I see authors and musicians weigh into the debate at the technology level without acknowledging the negative side-effects of the DRM scheme. It is sometimes the case that technologists who resist a particular technical implementation of DRM are not attacking an artist’s right to earn a living.

It should be noted that no pirates were harmed throughout this whole saga.

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