I’ve been reading a lot of books in the past couple of years about technology, privacy, and technology laws. I’m planning a book around those topics, and I’m still having trouble figuring out my angle to that book. That’s actually why I’m writing A Path Through the Twilight Woods instead of that book right now; I couldn’t make it work yet.
One book that I keep coming back to is The End of Ownership by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz. They talk about the ways in which we’re slowly training ourselves to get used to not owning things. They outline the ways that digital copyright goes against ownership as we are used to understanding it. It’s a fascinating book and I recommend anyone who is interested in the topic to definitely pick it up. This post is me trying to figure out my takeaways from it.
The lie of the language
One of the things that the book talks about at length is the fact that all sellers of digital goods always use the term “buy”. But the Terms of Service inevitably change that context from “buy” to “lease”. If you “buy” a knife from a store, you’ll get annoyed if they come to take it away from you after you lend it to a friend. Or if the store you bought it from goes out of business. Or decide to use your chef’s knife to cut bread. To be fair, you deserve your knife taken away for that last one, what’s the matter with you? Point being; when you buy an ebook on Amazon or a song on iTunes, you’re not actually buying anything. You’re leasing that piece of content at the sufferance of the actual owner; Amazon or iTunes.
Even the copyright holder does not necessarily maintain the kind of control of the song or book after the tech giants get their hands on it. If I ever manage to sell my book I doubt that I’m going to have control over if the book is “sold” with or without copyright. There are very few hitters in the publishing game heavy enough to be able to withhold their eBook rights from a publisher. The big players like Amazon can even direct publishers by the nose, they can basically do whatever they like. The user left with the choice of enduring bad options or re-buying their entire collection is left with nothing but leasing instead of buying.
Access to goods
One of the other points that stuck hard for me are the ideas of lending and reselling. Before I read this book, I hadn’t thought about the amount of both music and books I’ve bought and then either resold, lent, or given onward. But with my digital library that’s not possible. The technical solutions exist, and it would probably be good for everyone involved. The publishers were the ones who objected to public libraries way back when as well, but in the end, it was good for their business. It’s good for the authors. The only ones who don’t actually profit off lending electronic content are the people who actually create the DRM (Digital Rights Management) solutions.
Public libraries are a great source of access to books and music for people without the budget to buy every book they read. I would not be the reader I am today if not for the local library and the librarians who never had a bad word to say about the mountain of books I loaned out. But as digital books become more and more prevalent, these options of lending books become limited.
Do you own your hardware?
If your hardware is unusable without a piece of software can you really claim to own that hardware? When your coffee machine only brews coffee from pods by that company, is it really your coffee maker? When you aren’t allowed to fix your tractor, is it really your tractor? Our lives are dependent on software in general and with the Internet of Things that’s only going to get worse. (There’s absolutely a post coming on IoT and security at a later date.) When the maker of your devices gets to dictate the manner in which you use them and if you are allowed to use them at all, you don’t really own them. You’re just leasing the coffee maker, the tractor, the truck, the toaster. This is happening more and more.
And as it becomes normalized, our understanding of what it means to own our things gets more and more muddled. Maybe that’s what’s needed but it should happen with our informed consent.
Various people use blogging to make sense and clarify their thinking around things that they read. Since I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this book, I’m going to do that more this year. Because by the end of the year, this book is going down.