Friday, February 13, 2009

But it's mine!

In the discussion of whether the ways in which an ebook document may be used (for instance, whether the person who has licensed that document can be restricted from printing it out or having text-to-speech software read it aloud), one commenter on this post of mine wrote, "You actually DON'T have the right to tell me what I can do with something that I legally purchased."

This argument -- "I paid for it so no one can tell me after that what I can do with it" -- is simply out of touch with reality.

You can buy a car, but there are countless regulations governing what you may do with it even though it's your property. You can't, for instance, drive it without a license, drive it recklessly, permanently export it to another country, drive it without insurance, allow children to drive it, park your car in my driveway, and so on.

You can buy tobacco or alcohol, but there are countless regulations governing when and where you may consume them, and you can't transfer ownership of either to minors.

You can buy soft drinks but, in many jurisdictions, you can't throw out the containers when you're done but rather must recycle them; same for newspapers and other paper products including paperback books.

You can buy a gun (in some jurisdiction), but you can't use it except under very narrow circumstances.

You can buy a scanner and color printer, but you can't use it to scan and print banknotes (indeed, many scanners and printers have technology built in to prevent them from doing that).

You can buy a model of a spaceship from your favorite TV show, but you can't put it in a movie you're making without a licensing agreement.

You can buy a DVD of a motion picture, but you're not allowed to exhibit it commercially ("licensed for home viewing only").

You can buy a DVD burner and blank DVD media, but you can't legally use it to make and sell copies of commercial software, music, or movies.

You can buy clothes that don't conceal your genitals, but you cannot legally wear them in public in many jurisdictions.

You can buy a boom-box, but you can't run it at full volume in public places or late at night.

You can buy a microwave oven, but you can't use it on a still-alive squirrel you caught in your backyard.

You can buy prescription drugs, but you can't give them to anyone else.

You can buy a tree, but you can't burn its leaves after your rake them up in many jurisdictions.

You can buy a house, but you can't use it for commercial purposes, or turn it into a multi-family dwelling, unless it is licensed for that use.

You can buy a camera, but you can't use it to take pictures of people through their windows.

You can buy a book on a subject, but you can't plagiarize its contents and pass them off as your original research in your essays for school or university.

You can buy a dog, but in many jurisdictions you can't let it run free without a leash.

You can buy software -- such as some Norton products -- that contain advanced data-encryption routines, but you cannot export the software outside the United States or Canada.

You can buy a cat, but most places you cannot kill, cook, and eat it.

You can buy devices that allow you to record phone conversations, but you cannot, in many jurisdictions, use them.

You can buy a police-radar detector, but, in many jurisdictions, you cannot turn it on.

You can win an Oscar -- thus obtaining the trophy legally -- but you cannot then sell that trophy.

You can buy all sorts of property but you can't bequeath ownership of it to your children or someone else without paying estate taxes.

In some jurisdictions, you may own but cannot sell or display Nazi artifacts.

And on and on and on. Society routinely and frequently limits what can be done with things we've bought -- and, indeed, in the specific case of intellectual property, we already have oodles of case law upholding that in fact, yes, indeed, society does have the right to tell people "what they can do with something that they've legally purchased."

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site



At February 13, 2009 12:03 PM , Blogger Rick said...

I certainly agree that society, through explicit laws or implicit cultural norms, does indeed limit what we can do in all the ways you gave examples of.

The words he used were "You actually DON'T have the right to tell me...." I don't know if it was by design, but I read the 'you' as referring to you, the author.

In that case, he seems to be correct. I've purchased many of your books and I did so either through a retailer, or from you directly. I signed no contract in either case so I'm bound only by the laws I'm subject to. They do certainly restrict my options, but I don't believe that you can.

Interestingly, you do certainly have to power to give me more options. You could release your work into the public domain, for example, but I'm not sure how you could legally restrict my options any more than when I purchased the work, save a contract I sign at the time of purchase.

Interesting post.

At February 13, 2009 12:29 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Well, since at no time did I ever speak of me personally interfering with what a customer could do -- I spoke entirely of contractual arrangements between Amazon and the book's print publisher, and between the book's print publisher and the author -- to shout at me for trying to do something I had never tried to do would be a bit histrionic.

Still, in point of fact, I (and other authors) do retain copyright on my (our) work even after you have bought a physical or electronic instantiation of that work, so if you want to say that the pronoun was directed at me personally, then, in fact, the law is entirely clear: I DO in fact have a wide range of rights to control what is done with my content even after copies of it are sold.

And the naive point that physical ownership of a copy is all that matters -- that once you possess something you may do anything you wish with it -- is not borne out in law or common civil understanding not just for books, but for a great number of things that we routinely sell. And that point ("I bought it; it's mine to use in any way I wish") -- whether the initial poster was making it or not -- IS routinely trotted out in discussions such as these, and, as the examples I cited show, it's clearly not true.

(And, incidentally, you DO agree to contractual terms imposed by Amazon when you buy an ebook for a Kindle -- you do the same when you buy an ebook from any other vendor; there ARE undertakings made by the purchaser.)

But the more germane point to the specific Kindle issue, I think, is this: we live in a society that works because people honor contractual terms. In fact, it says much about our society that we use the same word for personal reputation or good name (one's honor) and to adhere to a contract (to honor its conditions).

When we speak of someone unilaterally changing a contract, and thinking they can get away with it simply because they are big, or powerful, or have deep pockets, and then obfuscate the fact that that's what's actually happening with rhetoric about stifling innovation or curtailing rights, we are blithely dismissing the very underpinning of our civil society: we're saying, oh, no, we were kidding all along about negotiating deals and keeping one's word; those things don't matter to us -- they're not values we hold dear. And that's a very dangerous position to take, in my view.

At February 13, 2009 2:18 PM , Blogger RichLayers said...

This is so fascinating because 1. I am a writer and hope to be published extensively someday, so all thoughts on this matter are pertinent, and 2. you and Neil Gaiman are two of my all time favorite authors and are coming down on opposite sides of the argument. It's wonderful and fascinating and surprisingly rare to see two people I have great respect for have completely different/opposite reactions to an issue.

At February 13, 2009 2:28 PM , Blogger H Don said...

I see the regulators and the regulations they are trying to impose a bit differently.

When I bought an LP, I could play it on any turntable. When I buy a CD, I can play it on any player. When I buy a book, I can read it anywhere.

But, now, if one buys a digital download (of whatever type), they do not want you to be able to play it on any device capable of it. They want you to buy one copy for your iPod, one for your Zune, etc, even though they are all the same file in the same format.

And in some case, what they're actually pushing for is that you should have to pay for it every time you listen to it. Or in the case of an ebook, every time you read it.

That, is what I don't agree with. If I buy a certain format, LP, CD, DVD, MP3, digital version whatever, I should have no restrictions in playing/using it on any device capable of playing that media/format.

Yes, broadcasting and duplication for profit should be punishable. But to sue me for playing a CD for a bunch of friends (ie at a party) because I haven't paid broadcast royalty fees, is pure corporate greed. And yes, there are cases out there where the RIAA has done exactly that.

At February 13, 2009 5:01 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

A fellow named Tony just sent this comment to me vial email, because he didn't have one of the online IDs required to post comments to this blog (a feature I turned on with regret after having far too much spam posted as comments to my blog entries):

"Interesting discussion Rob. Not to disagree but to put this in a different light how is having a device read a book to you different than having a friend read it to you? You have suggested that we will have robots in the not too distant future. Will they be allowed to read to their owners?"

The difference is that to have a person read a 100,000-word book aloud to you is ten solid hours of work -- which is deterrent enough in most cases to it being done. (Not to say it's illegal or immoral; it's perfectly fine -- but it's also so rare that nobody has worried about whether it's in fact a problem.)

It's similar to the difference that makes publishers not worry too much about people Xeroxing a 400-page book -- it's too much bother for any appreciable number of people to do it. But they DO lock ebooks so that they can't be printed out with a single touch of a button.

You raise a fascinating question about robots reading aloud copyright material that is only licensed for print display. I'm going to think about that -- might be a good story in it! ;)

The issue at hand is whether Amazon, which has acquired a right to DISPLAY text in a MANNER TO BE READ AS ALPHABETIC TEXT LIKE A PRINTED BOOK can just take rights to otherwise present that text.

Amazon freely agrees that they DON'T have the right to let users print that text -- that's barred contractually and although it would be trivial to implement from a hardware point of view, they haven't done it.

But they did NOT negotiate with publishers to allow the text to be read aloud by their device; they just did it -- and they don't have those rights. Those rights -- to produce audio versions of the text -- are reserved in the author's contracts with the print publisher.

And, indeed, normally when some third party licenses audiobook rights from the author, that third party is constrained against having multiple voices doing the audio-book reading, because that infringes on "dramatic rights," yet another specific area of licensing.

It's fascinating to look at a major publisher's contract and see all the fine distinctions, and to look at a successful author's income statement, to see how all these different rights are exercised.

(As one small example of overlapping rights, my contract with ABC for the TV series based on my novel Flash Forward says that if and only if a graphic novel of the book existed prior to the ABC contract being signed could there be a graphic novel; otherwise, ABC's position is that any visual presentation of the story infringes the rights they've licensed.)

The point of all this is that the licensing of various rights to books is a complex field: publishers have full-time staff who deal with these matters, authors employ agents or lawyers who are specialist to negotiate and write the contract language, and so on.

For those who are on the outside peering in, I realize some of this might sound picayune, but, in fact, this subdividing of licenses (by type of use, and also geographically) is how we authors eke out our often precarious livings, and to just blithely ignore that without so much as even asking (publishers and authors were blindsided Monday when Amazon announced the text-to-speech feature) is wrong.

To give an example, here's how some of the licensing on my novel Wake, coming out in eight weeks, has gone so far:

* First Serial (Magazine) Rights: to Analog.

* Second Serial Rights to an excerpt: to Canadian Notes and Queries.

* United States book rights (including ebook rights): to Ace.

* Canadian book rights: to Penguin Canada.

* United Kingdom book rights: to Orion.

* Australian book rights: to Orion.

* North American book-club rights: to the Science Fiction Book Club.

* Audiobook rights: to

The book-club rights money is shared 50:50 between me and Ace; Ace and I will also split revenues on ebook versions of Wake sold in the United States (including any sold for the Kindle); the rest is all mine (as will be any film/TV money, foreign/translated edition money, and so on, as the book's life continues -- although some authors let their publishers have a piece of these other rights (and the publisher always asks for them)).

At February 13, 2009 7:36 PM , OpenID tewha said...

I don't have much of a problem with the argument that Amazon didn't buy the rights to present the book in spoken form.

But I certainly hope an automated way of reading ebooks out loud comes about. My aunt (who passed away of cancer a few years ago) was blind and relied on Braille and audiobooks, and the last time I spoke to her about it (which was years before she died), her options were really limited.

Maybe things have got better since, but my expectation is that someone with a disability should be able to enjoy a book as technology allows at a reasonable cost to them, rather than having things stuck for years over licensing or technology issues. Does Audible produce books at a good speed?

(This is not intended as a flame. For all I know, the situation is much better now, and I certainly respect your expectation of being properly compensated!)

At February 13, 2009 7:57 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Tewha. gets new books out usually the same month the print edition appears, and is also vigorously adding older titles to its collection as well. I've been an customer for eight years now, since March of 2001, and highly recommend their service.

At February 13, 2009 8:12 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Another point on all this: I happen to be a huge fan of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and, in fact, attended the 10th anniversary celebration of its enactment at the Capitol Building in Albany, New York, on July 26, 2000.

I have no problem whatsoever with a system being put in place that allows those with legitimate physical or mental challenges to have the TTS function enabled on their Kindles regardless of license agreements; that'd be perfectly fine by me. But, just as we don't let just anyone have the free audio versions now available for the visually impaired, or let just anyone park in a handicapped spot, I'm not (yet) convinced that this technology should be enabled for all users without express contractual permission from the rights holders.

At February 14, 2009 12:34 AM , Blogger Steven Fisher said...

(Fixed my handle, not sure why it was broken.) Always enabled TTS for the legally blind seems like a really reasonable compromise to me.

I imagine my aunt would have very quickly switched to a real spoken version anyway, since even the best computer voices fall hugely short.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Huge fan, by the way. Started with Flash Forward, and have picked up quite a few of your books since. More to find and read, of course. Always the case! :)

At February 24, 2009 8:37 PM , Blogger Andrew Zimmerman Jones said...

Whoah, hold on ... You can't sell an Oscar?!?!

At February 24, 2009 8:46 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

More on ownership and sale of Oscar trophies is here, Andrew.


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