A recent discussion on Slashdot (and reported on BoingBoing) raises an interesting question: with the commercial world moving ever more towards conditional licencing agreements for games, music, and ebooks, is there going to come a flash point whereby consumers realise they're paying for nothing more than thin air? Or, will the powers that be see the necessity to force a change in law to ensure that people still get what they (think they) are paying for?

It's one of the reasons I've shied away from music rental services (that, and the horrible DRM too), but it's also a driving force behind me actively avoiding ebook and digital media purchases for things like films and TV shows. If we're paying the same as we'd pay for physical media, but we're getting less rights in return (and often, not even a permanent digital copy) why should we even bother paying?

It's definitely one of the factors for the MP3 format sticking around as long as it has (and I fully support open* formats like FLAC and MP3, but I would only hand over money for music in FLAC format at a push for reasons of quality). I'd most definitely never enter into a licencing agreement between myself and a publisher - books are one of those things you can savour, hold in your hand, leaf through the pages or enjoy at your own pace. And, when I'm done with it, and if I don't want it, I can sell it on - can you do that with an ebook? Not likely.

Well, not yet, anyway... But isn't the whole point of digital media that by its very nature, it removes the element of scarcity? Surely the death knell of the humble printed book isn't already ringing?

Can there ever be 'digital rights'? (and can industry ever expect to be able to 'manage' these rather nebulous 'consumer rights' when, arguably, they themselves don't have the right in the first place?)

From the Gizmodo article,

In the fine print that you "agree" to, Amazon and Sony say you just get a license to the e-books—you're not paying to own 'em, in spite of the use of the term "buy." Digital retailers say that the first sale doctrine—which would let you hawk your old Harry Potter hardcovers on eBay—no longer applies. Your license to read the book is unlimited, though—so even if Amazon or Sony changed technologies, dropped the biz or just got mad at you, they legally couldn't take away your purchases. Still, it's a license you can't sell.

But is this claim legal? Our Columbia friends suggest that just because Sony or Amazon call it a license, that doesn't make it so. "That's a factual question determined by courts," say our legal brainiacs. "Even if a publisher calls it a license, if the transaction actually looks more like a sale, users will retain their right to resell the copy." Score one for the home team.

There's a kicker, though: If a court ruled with you on that front, you still can't sell reproductions of your copy, an illegal act tantamount to Xeroxing your Harry Potters. You'd have to sell the physical media where the "original" download is stored—a hard drive or the actual Kindle or Sony Reader. Our guess is that it only gets more complicated from here. What happens when the file itself resides only on some $20-per-month Google storage locker?

There's a full commentary on BoingBoing (and a link to the parent Slashdot story via the Gizmodo article).


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