Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Who Owns Ebooks?

A recent question by Barbara Mathews posted on the Technology for Genealogy page on Facebook, caught my attention. It asks the question, "Do we own ebooks the same way we own print books?"

The question asks something that is very complicated. Ownership is a difficult concept to explore. To a great extent ownership is both culturally and politically based. There are many levels of ownership from the individual's belief about who "owns" something tangible to national and international treaties and agreements concerning "ownership." You can even ask the philosophical and/or religious questions about who owns the earth?

In an absolute sense, ownership is meaningless. Did my dead ancestor own his farm? Well, then who "owns" that same piece of land today? So, we see that ownership, no matter how defined, has a basis in some cultural or legal system. In the United States we have layers, upon layers of culture and law defining ownership of everything from common physical objects to the land itself. We have whole industries and government organizations devoted to determining who owns what. Do you own your own body? What if a doctor takes out your tonsils, do you own your tonsils?

Asking an abstract question such as "Who owns Ebooks" brings up so many issues, I suppose I could design a university level course on the topic. So thanks for the question.

You are saying, come on James, now tell us the answer. Well, folks, this is one time that there isn't a satisfying answer. First, the question, are ebooks the same as print books and if so, how do we own a print book?

If I get on Amazon.com and order a print book and it is delivered to me, what have I "purchased?" In truth, I have purchased the right to possess the one physical copy of the book during my lifetime, if I choose to do so. Unless, what? Unless, I give it away physically or unless I lose it or unless I loan it to someone else and they never return it. Umm. The last unless got a little complicated. If I steal something, do I own it? If my friend borrows the book and never returns it, does my friend then "own" the book? In many of these cases in our society we have evolved ways to "register" ownership through deeds, product registration etc. Who knows if I own a book or not?

Back to the print book, what if I borrow a book from a library? Do I own it? What happens if I lose the borrowed book? What happens if I loan the borrowed book to a friend and he loses the book? What happens if I keep the book longer than I agreed to do so?

See, complicated. Now, from one standpoint buying an ebook is just exactly like buying a paper book. If I copy the ebook in its entirety and give a copy to someone, it is exactly like copying an entire paper book and giving a copy to some one. It clearly violated U.S. and International copyright law. The ease of doing this might be different, but the effect and legal issues are exactly the same. If you give a copy of your ebook to someone don't you intend to keep your own copy on your computer? Do you see what I mean. You can't keep something tangible and give it away at the same time.

OK, this discussion could get really metaphysical, but yes, ebooks are covered by copyright laws, just as any other original work would be.

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