Even Better than the Real Thing?

“Information wants to be free.” Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog

A couple of years ago, our library system began offering audiobooks and ebooks for downloads. We contracted with a company called Overdrive, who acts as the “middle man” between publishers and libraries. At no cost to our library users, they can download an ebook or an audiobook to their computer or mobile device (i.e. iPod touch, iPhone, Blackberry, iPad or Android) and also transfer it to most ebook readers (Sony Reader, Kobo, Nook, etc). Kindle is the main hold-out to this for now, although I understand Amazon is doing tests with American libraries, and if Amazon deems it worthwhile for them, they will expand access to Canadian libraries.

“Access” is the key word here.

Downloadable ebooks and audiobooks differ from print books in many ways, but the most important and probably least understood is what you actually get for your troubles. With regards to ebooks, not a whole lot.

With paper books, or what I curmudgeonly refer to as “real” books, thanks to the right of first sale, you can do whatever the hell you want with it once you’ve bought it. You can give it as a gift, resell it, donate it, use it for kindling, or hollow the inside out and keep a nice bottle of Bushmills safe from harm’s way. If it wasn’t for the right of first sale, the wonderful world of musty old used book shops wouldn’t even exist:

"The pay's not great, but the work is hard". Bernard, Black Books.


Contrast this with the soulless sensation of downloading a title to your device. You don’t actually own it, even if you think you’ve bought it. You’ve just bought ACCESS to an idea. Just try reselling, or giving away your digital copy of the latest James Patterson. It’s difficult, isn’t it? And don’t even try to store whiskey in there. Welcome to the wonderful world of  Digital Rights Management (DRM). Cory Doctorow’s presentation to Microsoft’s Research Group back in 2004 makes a very compelling case against DRM, and I’ll let his words speak for themselves. Boom!

There have been some strides made in the fight against DRM. Apple’s iTunes Store has sold DRM free music since 2007, although they still attach a watermark on each file containing user account info, and they still have heavy DRM restrictions on movies, ringtones, tv shows and audiobooks.

But for the most part, libraries (right alongside consumers) are held ransom by the whims of publishers. I wrote about Harper Collins’ decision back in March to limit libraries to 26 downloads of any given title. DRM restrictions on audiobooks seem even more random and arbitrary. Telling customers, “Yes, you can put it on an iPod, but no, it won’t work on a Mac. It works on Windows only, but for some reason you can’t put in on an mp3 player. And you’re right, I don’t know why you can burn book 1 of a series to a CD, but books 2 and 3 of the same series won’t” gets really tiring. My shorthand answer for all this is that “Publishers set up the borrowing rules, not us”, and it saves time and breath.

I haven’t even got to the aesthetic differences between holding a physical book in your hands versus an ebook or other device. Perhaps I’ll save my own personal experiences with ebooks for a future post. One faithful member of the fanbase has been toying with the idea of getting an iPad. Perhaps if she does, I will get a chance to try it out for myself. I promise to keep my mind open, even though the system is not.


I love the Gonzo aesthetic in the logo. I have a t-shirt.



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