Is an ebook an experience or a thing?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

What exactly do you buy when you buy an ebook?

What exactly do you buy when you buy an ebook? Access to an experience, or something you can share and sell?

When readers purchase paper books, they know what they bought and they know what they can do with it. They can read it. They can re-read it as many times as they like. They can lend it to someone else to read. They can pass it around to everyone in their office. They can resell it in a yard sale or on eBay or to used bookstore. They can donate it to Goodwill, and let Goodwill resell it.

Is an ebook a thing you have or a thing you do?

When a reader purchases an ebook, what they can do with it is not so clear. When is it okay to lend and resell it, and when do lending and reselling constitute… piracy?

Do we purchase the “ideas” contained in the ebook’s words and pictures? Do we purchase the “experience” of reading it once or twice or a specific number of times? Do we purchase the right to read it on one specific platform—Kindle perhaps—but not on another, say Nook or iBook?

The answer to each of those questions is… it depends.

Many ways to acquire ebooks, many ways to regulate them

It depends on the terms we’ve agreed to when we purchased the ebook—terms that are not always clear to the average consumer. Some ebook stores require shoppers to check the box agreeing long, complicated legal statements—which are hardly ever read and difficult to understand.

It depends on the model of protection the publishers have chosen. Some publishers enact Digital Rights Management (DRM) settings on their titles, while others decline.

It depends on the ereader software we’re using, and the range of ereaders we own. It depends on the country we live in. It depends on whether we’re part of a school community or a library that’s made their own, separate agreements with the ebook’s publisher or distributor.

“It depends” as a default answer puts both readers and publishers in a murky place. Copyright infringement cases have made headlines in recent months, and the courts’ rulings are based on specific cases, extrapolating them out to the rest of the industry is not simple. To make matters worse, different countries have different copyright laws, despite the fact that digital distribution knows no borders.

Do you purchase access to information or the information itself?

When a book was a thing you could hold and get paper cuts from, it was easy to define a buyer, a seller, and a thief. Today’s ebooks are about bytes and pixels and ideas. Access to those things can be unfairly restricted by a seller, unfairly abused by a thief, and unfairly shared by a buyer.

It is “unfair access” that we are talking about when we are talking about ebook piracy—not necessarily “stolen goods.”

But the boundaries of “lawful access” are murky. When you buy an ebook, do you purchase an experience (which cannot be resold) or a thing (which can be resold)—or some nebulous combination of the two?

The “thing-versus-experience” confusion get to the very heart our new digital economy. Right now, it feels like we’re in a swamp where old definitions are blurred in the fog.

When you buy an ebook, do you buy the content, which can be resold, or the experience, which cannot? Some publishers who see ebooks as an experience want to restrict ebook buyers from doing things paper book buyers can legally do (resell them, for one). Some readers who see ebooks as an experience and not a “thing” don’t want to pay for them when they legitimately should.

Publishers now grapple with the same issues that all digital industries face

Ownership versus access. Things versus experiences. Should ebooks be more clearly aligned with one or the other? These are messy questions–but ebook publishers are not alone.

Ebook publishers share these concerns with photographers, filmmakers, game and software producers, the music industry,… any business that makes and sells digital wares. All of these digital industries should get together and create some over-arching guidelines that can haul digital goods out of the swamps of confusion—the future of their businesses depend on it.

4 thoughts on “Is an ebook an experience or a thing?

  1. Tracey

    I’m not completely clear why an ebook has to be either an experience or a thing. Why one or the other? A print book is an object/thing, and the reading of it is an experience for the reader. Maybe I need to better understand how you define “experience”.
    The thing about sharing is one of the issues a lot of readers have with ebooks. When I read a good book and tell a friend about it, I can lend it to them if I wish. It remains my copy and, most of the time, my friends are quick to return it to me when they’re finished. I’ve never been made to feel that I’m doing the author a disservice when I share … it’s never been called ‘piracy’. In fact, I’ve often created a new fan for an author that way. Why should sharing become illegal when it’s an ebook?
    It’s funny how so many people talk about digital opening up publishing and how it will make so many more books more freely available. Rather, it seems to me like the industry is splitting hairs in ways they’ve never done before. You would never hear someone wonder whether you buy the content or the experience with a print book.
    I’m also not sure that you should count out print all together. “When a book was a thing you could hold”? They still are, aren’t they?

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