Readers have rights, too

The first thing I saw this morning on Twitter was a link to an article about e-book sales in the New York Times.

This link, oft-retweeted, was usually mentioned alongside an admonishment to a Kindle owner named Ms. Englin.  Ms. Englin’s offense?

Exploiting a loophole in Amazon’s system, Ms. Englin has linked her Kindle to the Amazon account of some nearby friends, allowing all of them to read books like “The Lost Symbol” at the same time — while paying for them only once. “I read much more, I tend to read faster for some reason, and I read a greater variety of things,” said Ms. Englin, adding that this is nearly the same as lending a physical book to friends. “We haven’t really looked closely at Amazon’s terms of service. But I do suspect we are breaking the rules.”

This is not called stealing.  It is not even in violation of Amazon’s terms of service.  Let’s go take a look at a book that I love–Eloisa James’s A Duke of Her Own–on Kindle.  (For some reason, Amazon seems to believe that this book was written by Lorraine Heath.  Not the case, Amazon.)  Scroll down to the product details, where you’ll see this lovely line:

Simultaneous Device Usage: Up to 5 simultaneous devices, per publisher limits.

See that?  What that means is that you can download this book five times.  So if you had a Kindle 1, and downloaded it there; and then you got a Kindle 2, and downloaded the book there, and then got a Kindle DX, and downloaded it again, and then used the Kindle for iPhone app, and downloaded it again, and then replaced your iPhone with the iPhone 3GS–you, as a consumer, would not be able to re-download the content for a sixth time, simply by virtue of your being an early, regular adopter of content.  If you wanted it again, you would have to purchase a second copy.

It also means, though, that if I purchased two Kindles–one for me, and one for my husband–we could read the same books while only paying for them once.  Check your horror quotient there: How do you feel about that?  Feel like we’ve done anything wrong?  I hope not, because it would be silly to say that me and my husband couldn’t share digital books.

In order to link a Kindle to an account, you need to share an Amazon account.  That doesn’t just give someone the right to download the books you’ve purchased; it gives them the right to buy books on your credit card.  Linking someone to your Amazon account is in no way like putting a file on a file-sharing site.  It gives them the right to purchase Selected Nuclear Materials and Engineering Systems (Part 4) for $6270.42, and stick you with the bill. In other words, linking accounts is an act of trust, limited by good sense (and the digital rights restrictions the publishers place on their products) to good friends and close family.

This is not stealing. It is not cheating.  It is not piracy.  It is the time-honored, all-important act of sharing books with a few trusted friends.

As authors, I think it is easy to jump on top of people for not paying for a book.  But keep in mind that the value a book has is not just in the act of reading it.  It’s also–hugely so–in the act of sharing it.  In giving a book to a friend and waiting breathlessly to see if she loves it as much as you do.  In reading a book someone else has recommended, and figuring out why it does (or doesn’t) work for you.  Books are about building community, and if we undercut that community as authors, we take value away from our books.

In a world where the price of books appears to be in free-fall, that’s not an outcome that anyone desires.  So authors, please, before calling your readers thieves, think carefully: is it really theft, or is it just part of the natural and inherent value of a book?  And if you insist that that value be taken away, what price do you think your books will support?

(I edited this post in tiny part to clear up an antecedent.)

24 thoughts on “Readers have rights, too

  1. Hi Courtney — I completely agree, it’s a bit much to be calling a reader a thief when the publisher states that a book can be on 5 simultaneous devices. It’s no different than if I bought a copy of THE LOST SYMBOL, read it and handed it to my husband, who then handed it to his friend.

    The difference with digital copies is that people seem to think the rights should be different. While I definitely see that the ability for abuse is there, there still needs to be an understanding that people like to share books, no matter what form they come in.

  2. What you said. I think the problem was the article itself, not the Kindle’s terms of service. The article makes it sound like Ms. Englin and her friends had somehow found a way to cheat the system, which obviously isn’t the case. Poor wording in the article.

    I love the idea of sharing books, and I think that as ereaders advance in technology, we’ll see more of it done legally. Piracy is a whole different issue. It’s definitely one thing to share an ebook with a friend with linked Kindles or with something like the Nook supposedly has (I don’t know the exact details,) and it’s another to post a book to a site where thousands can download for free.

    Ms. Englin is definitely taking a hit…it’s too bad the article wasn’t clearer!

  3. I have my iPhone, my hubby’s iPhone, and my Kindle all linked to one account. Have been thinking about getting him a Kindle. It would of course be linked to the rest.

    Well said as usual, Courtney. Thanks for your perspective. I hadn’t thought about friends linking, but why not. They can still only max out at 5.

  4. Pricing and buying and sharing is such a morass. Of course writers want to make money from their work, but we all also love libraries. Want to get paid, but word of mouth is the most effective sales tool. Etc. I wish I could come up with something besides just the vague reassurance that more readers, more people talking about books is better for everyone, however the books are acquired.

  5. Isn’t the same thing possible with iTunes downloads? You can have them on up to 5 devices.

    I *wish* that people would pass my books along to four friends each! I understand that widespread piracy is a concern for authors and publishers, but I get so frustrated by the “theft” rhetoric. The basic act of sharing books is a good thing. For authors, for readers, for society. I’ve received fan mail from readers who feel they need to apologize for getting my book from a friend or the library, and it makes me sad that they feel that way.

  6. Frankly, I don’t know enough yet about digital rights and piracy to take an educated position, but I do know what I’m putting on my Christmas list this year… Selected Nuclear Materials and Engineering: The Complete Series. Think it’ll fit in my stocking?

  7. Tessa, I completely agree. Anywhere people can read is a good thing, and sharing books is a good thing. It especially helps to introduce a reader to a new author. Hopefully if they are given a book by someone else (which is a recommendation to read it) they will look for more from that author.

    It’s just interesting that while most people wouldn’t think twice about sharing a physical book with a friend, when it comes to sharing an electronic version of it, suddenly, it’s treated as theft. (And yes — 5 devices for iTunes downloads, too. I know, hubby and I recently hit that wall on a number of our songs, simply because of the number of computers we’ve had over the years.)

  8. Courtney-thank you for explaining it that way. As Larissa said, I think the article worded it poorly. It started out with “Ms. Englin has never paid for an e-book”. And it quoted her as “we are breaking the rules”.

    It is easy to scream “thief” when it comes to this issue. For me, its very personal and I think almost becoming a witch hunt. I hate seeing my friends and clients hurt by all the illegal sharing that’s going on. Maybe I need to take a chill pill.

  9. What you said.

    Thanks for this, Courtney. You’re spot on.

    It’s really too bad the article didn’t end up being what the reporter indicated it was: an exploration of a renaissance of reading. THAT would have been interesting, and a lens through which we could explore important issues like digital rights versus paper rights (there is no way to limit the number of people I hand the paper copy of a book to – the issue of sharing is a new one, created by digital content).

    In any case, there’s upside for me: now I’ve been introduced to a slew of interesting new writers!

  10. I bet I’m not the only one who’s tired of articles that misrepresent what they’re about and then don’t even get the facts right on the actual subject.

    I’m curmudgeonly today and today, I say, maybe more people would read newspapers if there were actual news instead of alarmist, inaccurate schlock.

    Anyway, I agree with your post Courtney.

  11. Thanks everyone for listening. I think Shayna hit it on the head: we are in a renaissance of reading.

    Like all times of turmoil, there’s a lot to be afraid of. I just think it’s important that we remember that authors and readers are friends: we need them, they need us (and hey, I’m a reader first). Authors should stick up for readers’ rights, even if it sometimes makes us feel afraid.

  12. It’s slightly different, in that with Kindle sharing you can have simultaneous access; and that you can re-share your book copy more than 6 times.

    But it’s the same basic concept.

  13. Thanks for such a thought-provoking blog, Courtney. I see many of your points, but am still having some difficulty.

    These are the lines that bother me: “We haven’t really looked closely at Amazon’s terms of service. But I do suspect we are breaking the rules.”

    Even if what a person is doing isn’t legally construed as “wrong,” the fact that she suspects it as such, yet continues doing it, makes me shake my head.

    On the other hand, I don’t put it past any journalist to manipulate information according to his or her agenda. I’ll be the first to apologize to you, Shayna, if you’ve been misquoted. You should know, however, that in this climate, making a descent living as an author is a very difficult endeavor. With all the issues of e-piracy threatening authors’ paychecks, I think your biggest problem was coming off so cavalierly. But again, if you’ve been misquoted, there was nothing you could have done.

  14. J, I guess that doesn’t bother me all that much. People often feel that reading romance novels is “wrong” or that anything that’s good must be illegal. It’s our Puritan heritage at work. 🙂

    I guess I just don’t think that sharing threatens an authors’ paycheck–and she and her friends are reading more than ever now. I’m good with that.

  15. My take: let Mom or Aunt Jane borrow the Kindle, it’s sharing. Upload a PDF to a torrent site and broadcast it on a “sharing” message board for the world to see, it’s piracy. Goes for books, music, movies.

    I imagine for an author who receives a nice advance for his/her works, it’s no big deal. Mid-listers and eBook authors who depend on royalties for paying bills and rent are more likely to have an issue.

  16. Great post. The big hoopla was because of the article. It made the whole thing come off as some reader who was reading multiple books and sharing with multiple readers without ever purchasing one and bragging about it. Of course the authors saw red. It didn’t help that when you click on TOS it doesn’t mention any of this unless you dig down deep.
    I replied to a fellow author’s tweet about this and yes I was upset & said if this woman was blatantly admitting to illegal downloading through “exploiting a loophole” she should be sued.
    Ms.Englin sent me a link to her blog and I soon discovered it was basicly a hatchet job by the reporter and of course felt horrible which prompted an immediate apology and an explanation on behalf of all angry authors what it was in this article that set us off.
    The reporter should be reprimanded for this. The whole fiasco has me scared to ever talk to one.
    Now the authors who were upset are receiving tweets and negative comments from others, too. It’s all a horrible result of a very misleading article. Such a shame.
    For the record, I can’t think of one author who would mind a reader getting their book off eBay, from the library or used bookstore or through the 6 allowable downloads on Kindle. The article made it sound like piracy and unless you have a Kindle, you don’t know about the 6 allowable downloads. It definitely wasn’t easy info to find.

  17. Courtney, I’m sure if Puritanism has anything to do with it, but I will say that it is most unfair you can correct your antecedent … and I can’t correct my “descent” 🙂


  18. Hi Courtney 🙂
    Thank you for sharing today.
    I am still nonplussed at why I am not supposed to send an ebook I bought to my mom or sister via email, messenger, etc. Isn’t that the same as sharing? I know they will buy more by that author if they like the novel.
    All the best,
    PS – I agree with the book industry renaissance.

  19. I’m a public librarian, so… rock on, to everything you said in this post. 🙂 I think a *lot* of us are still feeling our way around this digital medium, but I personally hope that “they”– the government or the publishing houses or the retailers– never manage to legislate away our right to share.

  20. as a publishing outsider and an avid reader it is hard for me to believe that it is against “the rules” to share a book with friends and family-long before social networking etc etc I passed on books to my 5 sisters- it was (and is) a tie that has bound us for over 35 years. When will the publishing industry wake up and realize that this is what has fueled their business model?

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