Who Took Your E-book?

E-readers are spreading both in the U.S. and abroad. Last week the New York Times reported that the Kindle, previously available only on Amazon.com, will be sold in brick-and-mortar stores by Target. College students could grab one when they pick up their school supplies. A study at the Darden School of Business, reporting that 90 to 95 percent of MBA students in select Darden classes would recommend the Kindle DX as a personal reading device, suggests that this is likely to happen. In addition, by the end of the year, Borders will offer 10 different models of e-readers in its retail stores, including the more affordable Kobo and the Libre ($149 and $120 respectively).

While the original Kindle to ship internationally was essentially a U.S.-centric device, with a U.S. power adapter, a U.S.-layout keyboard, and access only to English-language books, its current competitors are better equipped to target foreign markets. For instance, Spring Design's Alex eReader will come with Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Korean, and Hebrew language capabilities and connect to local bookstores internationally. In addition, following its international launch last month, the iPad is expected to make a splash in Japan as it is particularly suitable for reading manga and the popular weekly magazines shukanshi. At the same time, the iPad will continue to spread English-language content through apps connecting to Barnes & Noble's and Amazon's e-book stores.

While the spread of e-readers is exciting news in places where access to books is limited and research libraries are poorly stocked, it also raises the specter of copyright infringement. Last year, Amazon resorted to deleting e-books by George Orwell from its customers' Kindles after realizing that it did not have a license for U.S. distribution. The incident raised questions about property rights over e-books customers had already bought, and the WSJ's Geoffrey Fowler argued that owning an e-book was like having a license to a piece of software since access came with fine-print terms of service and limitations on use imposed by DRM technologies. Hence, Amazon has the legal right to pull the books you paid for from your digital bookshelf. 

For books printed on paper, the first-sale doctrine dictates that copyright owners control distribution of a work up until its first sale into the stream of commerce. Thus, once you buy a book at the local book-store, you can lend it to a friend, resell it, or donate it to the library. In contrast, e-books, available on devices tethered to an online content provider, are "contingent: rented instead of owned, even if one pays up front for them." (Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet 107 (2008)). Hence, as Jonathan Zittrain explains, the material you store on your e-reader is "subject to instantaneous revision," and changes may be "content-specific, user-specific, or even time-specific." In other words, when you take your Kindle to your dorm room you may discover that your copy of Ender's Game has disappeared because Amazon's license to it expired. When you take your iPad to Japan, you may not be able to read your English-language content along with the manga and shukanshi if your e-book provider lacks Japanese distribution rights. You may also find that pages on Chechnya and Tiananmen Square have been "torn" out of your ebooks in Russia and China.

Seemingly at the tip of your fingers, your e-book library may be in the hands of others.

(Marina Petrova is a rising second year student at UCLA School of Law and a CMLP intern.)

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user unclefuz, licensed under a CC Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic license) 


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