When we buy print books, we own them. We don’t own the intellectual property, the copyright, but we own the print book. We can give it away, resell it, burn it. It’s ours.
When we “buy” ebooks, we rarely own them. We certainly don’t own the intellectual property, but we also don’t really have ownership of the files. This makes library lending of ebooks truly problematic. The libraries are paying for expensive licenses to files that can and do disappear, and that usually can’t be legally transferred from an old library ebook system to a new one.
Consumers face the problem of ebook ownership too. Even if the consumer is able to buy an ebook “file,” he or she can’t do much with it besides read it in the original device that it enters. They may not even be able to lend it or give it away, even if they delete their copy of the file.
Public Knowledge has just issued a thinkpiece, “Really Owning Your Stuff” that says that PK THINKS that consumers who legally own copies of works have personal property rights in those copies, just like they have property rights over other goods. I agree. Well put.
PK points out that in the seminal Supreme Court case that determined that the user owns the print book, this language was used: “secure to the owner thereof the exclusive right to multiply copies…” This is an important point. When we resell an ebook, we need to make a copy. Yet if we delete the original, has there really been a “multiplication” of copies? No.