the great e-reader debate: the American Way

When it comes to American copyright law, creative works are protected in essentially two different ways.1 The cool part is that everything is protected from copyright infringement the moment that the creative work is created. That sentence? It was covered the second I typed it. The short story I wrote in the fourth grade? Also protected.

Cool, isn’t it?

The problem is proving that you created it, ideally before anyone else either a) created it or 2) can prove they created it.2 But I’m not going to delve too deeply in that right now.

It’s the second protection I’m concerned with here.

If I write a story, I can pay the U.S. Copyright Office to register it and it’s protected in a provable fashion. Which is fine. But what if some publisher wants to publish my story? In this case, I give the publisher the right to disseminate my story. Essentially, I’m transferring a part of my right to copy to the publisher. The publisher then has the right to affix my creative work in the medium of its choosing.4

Obviously, the publishing industry has been a highly corporate industry for quite some time now. Corporations, of course, exist to make money for the shareholders. For the most part, this means selling as many copies of a creative work as possible. To this point in human history, the best way to sell a lot of copies has been to get it into as many bookstores as possible.4

It hasn’t happened yet, but this is about to change.

Right now I can buy pretty much any book I want from Amazon, from Barnes & Noble, and from thousands of other booksellers. Authors sign exclusive deals with publishers, but publishers do not sign with bookstore any more than music labels sign with radio stations.

Until now, booksellers’ only real interest was in selling enough to keep their bookstores open, whether online or on-the-street sellers. But these days at least two of the world’s largest booksellers have a vested interest in selling a product of their own. Aside from offering the best product at the best price, they can sell their product through the products that product offers.

In other words, you don’t just invest in a Kindle. You invest in Amazon.

If you’re Amazon, or more likely an underdog to Amazon, and you want to sell more e-readers, what’s one of the best ways to do it?

Exclusivity.

Nowadays corporations and publishers can protect their offerings restricting how customers use their products. For a long time you could only listen to iTunes songs through iTunes or on an iPod. Sure, people always find ways around these protections, but for the most part the systems of control work. iPods are popular because they’re cool, yes, but also because Apple made buying music easy. You didn’t have to go to the store. You didn’t have to buy the entire album.5 You didn’t have to lug CDs and a cumbersome CD player with you.

All you had to do was listen to the music on your iPod.

E-readers, especially the Nook and Kindle, have done for books what the iPod did for music. But the iPod had far less competition. Yes there were other Mp3 players out there, but there wasn’t any easy-to-use way to purchase and legally download the music for these players. With e-readers there’s plenty of competition, plenty of easy-to-use bookstores.

Plenty of reason to sign an exclusive deal. Or several exclusive deals.

This is the American way: if you can’t beat the competition by making a superior product, you find another way.

I’m so sure that this is the way things will go I’m even willing to guess when it will start. Or perhaps more precisely, with whom: J.K. Rowling.

You won’t find Harry Potter e-books out there. This is one of the most amazing omissions, so much so that I thought I had to be doing my search wrong. But I did find an a few articles stating that Rowling has okayed formatting the series into e-books, and I’ll be very surprised if they come out for multiple readers. Want to sell more Kindles? Sign Rowling and Bloomsbury, her publisher, to an exclusive deal.

This is why I find tablets appealing. As I mentioned yesterday, the iPad and any Android-based tablet will have both Kindle and Nook apps, which I could use to read any book purchased from their respective stores. There are other e-reader apps: iBooks, Aldiko. With a tablet I’d have access to any book irrespective of the American Way.

But, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there won’t be exclusive deals. I can’t say for sure. But do I take that risk? Do I buy a Kindle and risk not being able to read the Harry Potter books on it?

Or do I just stick to reading good old-fashioned books?


  1. This applies to standard copyright. The Creative Commons licenses are cool and are changing the way we look at copyright. But they generally don’t apply to materials published by big houses.
  2. This is why Mark Zuckerberg lost a boatload of cash to the Winklevoss twins. They could reasonably prove that they gave him the idea for Facebook before he made Facebook.
  3. A few things: bear in mind that I’m be very reductive here. Publishing contracts are crazy and can specify many things. Secondly, most writers don’t actually register their creative works with the U.S. Copyright Office, since there’s usually no need. Copyright is often registered upon publication.
  4. Well and to hype the shit out of it of course.
  5. And these days few artists are using the album as an art form anymore, so why would you buy the album?
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2 comments on “the great e-reader debate: the American Way

  1. Well, I got an iPad and have read a couple of books on it, and it’s great. Of course the flip side to the non-backlit, non-reflective, read it in daylight Kindle screen is the backlit, read it in the dark when you partner’s asleep bonus. But I don’t use the iPad primarily for books, mostly because I have a massive pile of real books waiting to be read, that’s just grown considerably over Christmas…

    However, the iPad is our most-used electronic device in the house (except phones). Much more than our laptops, and mainly for the instant-on email and web surfing it offers, plus a few key apps and games.

    But yeah, it’s heavy-ish (the Apple case helps) and you have to charge it, although for the use pattern we have that comes out at about once a week. Not too onerous.

    Horses for courses I’d say. If I was really into the idea of a device *just* for books I’d get a Kindle. But I don’t want one of those when I have too many paper books, and the iPad does a load of other stuff.

  2. Pingback: sometimes being right is so incredibly annoying, though of course there’s that satisfaction of being right even though you’d really have rather been wrong | a heap of broken images

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