Five reasons why I do not buy e-books:

  • You cannot buy; you license (although the Amazon page does refer to buying?)
  • Amazon deleted more paid-for books without notice after promising not to do it again
  • DRM
  • They are impermanent
  • They are often tied to a particular machine

Why I Do Not Buy E-BooksPoint 1: We can argue that nobody buys the contents of normal books, either. One only buys the physical book, but at least you do have a physical book to hold, which no one will come and take away unannounced. Which leads to…

Point 2: In 2009, Amazon deleted books by George Orwell from customers without notifying them. After an uproar, the company promised not to do it again. It did. Linn Jordet Nygaard had her account wiped clean without warning. The link tells what happened and closes with the interesting observation that one might consider ripping rather than buying. That is, the woman might have been better off as a pirate from the start! Amazon probably had good legal grounds to do what it did, but it had promised something different. At best it is a PR fiasco. Which leads to…

Point 3: How do we assure a fair return to creators of literature? In the past, publishing required a vast infrastructure that still wants to be fed, but times have changed. Copyright laws grew up when copying was pricey. Now copying is essentially free. The support industry must change, and so should its rewards. DRM was a response to free copying. One can argue that DRM is not perfect, but it is better than nothing. But DRM enshrines prohibition. Prohibition can work somewhat at great cost. Consider prostitution and recreational narcotics as counter-examples of prohibition’s effectiveness.

Remember music. The RIAA fought piracy, and it grew. The RIAA wanted prohibition. Customers did not. Steve Jobs did more to reduce piracy than the draconian measures of the RIAA when he introduced iTunes. It also is not perfect, but putting individual songs for sale cheaply (against the music companies’ desire to package albums) had a great effect. Most people would rather pay a fair price than pirate, but will turn to piracy if they perceive they are not being treated fairly.

Larry Lessig had a lot of good things to say about these issues.

Point 4: Contrary to what people think, digital is temporary. I can read hundred-year-old books and not read Apple ][ floppies. I have antique photographs anyone can access and images on an old Zip drive, which few can read. Do you think that Amazon, B&N, and Apple will provide updated e-books for free? Floppies are gone and CDs will likely follow soon. The only way to assure you have continued access to digital literature is to copy and convert to the latest format — but DRM does not permit that.

Point 5: This is a puzzling one. The policies have changed, and with cloud computing, this is probably not as big a deal as it once was, provided you are comfortable with buying a proprietary machine to read books in a proprietary format. I rebel.

Alternatives: An alternative to paying for e-books is to download public domain and other freebies, for instance, from Project Gutenberg. Some authors post their works for either free or a nominal fee. More adventurous people might consider whether making copies of copyrighted material for private backup is legal (I am not a legal expert!) and simply convert commercial e-books into an open source format without distributing. There are applications for organizing e-books that also convert between formats.

“Borrowing” e-books from a library is awkward at best and sadly humorous, but it is a viable alternative.

The most evil thing about prohibition is that it entices otherwise honest citizens to piracy. Loss of honesty is far worse than loss of treasure. How many times must we learn that lesson?

Image: Nonsense Books, by Edward Lear (via Project Gutenberg)