Why sharing ebooks is good for people – and good for publishers

One of the joys of reading is being able to share your favourite books with friends, family and colleagues. As I am sure is the case for most people, in these circumstances I often go on to buy my own copy of a book I have been lent and like. In this respect, sharing books is not only an important social act of generosity, it’s also one of the best forms of marketing, since it represents a recommendation from a trusted source, and a chance to try before you buy.

Things have changed recently, with the increasing popularity of ebooks. Many use Digital Rights Management (DRM) to make it hard for people to share books. More generally, publishers have pushed the line that unlike physical books, ebooks should never be shared. Their main reason for this assertion seems to be that it’s simply too easy to share digital books by making a copy, and so people shouldn’t do it, because, well, copyright. But this new injunction is really part and parcel of publishers’ wider fear of – and hatred for – anything digital. That’s because they know that it is impossible to stop digital material being copied, no matter what laws are passed, or DRM is applied.

The idea that ebooks by definition must never be shared was always wrong – books released under sensible licences can be shared without problems. It is also dangerous, because it leads to this kind of stupidity, noticed by the Twitter user @emeraalds when looking to buy a (physical) book, and reported here on The Mary Sue site (via mvario):

The copyright page, which is from a book called Zodiac Academy #1: The Awakening by Caroline Peckham and Susanne Valenti, reads, “This book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it wasn’t purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite book retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.”

In other words, the publishing industry’s repeated insistence that ebooks must not be shared has spilled over into the world of physical books. To the credit of the authors in this particular case, when they found out about the notice, they explained that it was added during the publication process, and that: “It was not checked or approved by us and is not an accurate statement or reflection of our principles, or our view on libraries”.

There are probably other physical books circulating that have this kind of statement on the copyright page. They represent a fundamental assault on the First Sale Doctrine, which allows people who have bought works that involve copyright to re-sell them. As the Wikipedia entry puts it:

Without the doctrine, a possessor of a copy of a copyrighted work would have to negotiate with the copyright owner every time they wished to dispose of their copy. After the initial transfer of ownership of a legal copy of a copyrighted work, the first-sale doctrine eliminates the copyright holder’s right to control ownership of that specific copy.

An important case at the Court of Justice of the European Union, the EU’s highest court, ruled that the First Sale Doctrine can also apply to digital goods. In the US, the situation is less clear-cut. But for reasons mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is actually in the publisher’s interest to encourage the sharing of ebooks, since it represents a powerful marketing approach that will drive new sales. The copyright world’s obsessions with control at any cost means that they are failing to enjoy these opportunities, and that authors are losing revenue as a result.

Featured image created with Stable Diffusion.

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