Do you think you own your digital library?

Bruce Willis in the film Die Hard 4. Photograph: Frank Masi

A few months ago a rumour went viral on the internet: Bruce Willis was suing Apple for the right to pass on his iTunes library to his daughters in his will. The rumour was denied by his wife shortly after – not before many news sites reproduced the story though. In any case, this is not a post about the decline of journalism in which being the “first” (or at least one of the first) to report is more important than actually checking what you’re reporting… This is a brief discussion of the question raised by the fictive legal action that – in my humble opinion – we don’t discuss deeply enough.

Bringing it to our academic world, perhaps the discussion of owning or having rights to reproduce a music file on iTunes is not relevant, but as we move more and more our lives to the cloud (I know, this is becoming a cliché), we need to understand what this actually means in terms of ownership (or the lack thereof) of digital goods.

I start the discussion by admitting that I have a hard time understanding the laws concerning the usage of this type of service (e.g. “buying” ebooks for Kindle). By the way, there is an excellent project intended to dismystify complicated terms of service in well-known web-based services: http://tos-dr.info/. But I digress…

So the main idea seems to be that you don’t actually buy a book for your Kindle: you pay for the right of reading it. So in the end a physical book and an ebook are fundamentally different products – you can’t resell, you can’t lend, you can’t borrow ebooks. And sometimes they cost just as much as they heavy physical counterparts. So the tradeoff is not simply being a high or a low tech reader: it is about whether you want to own your library or just have access to it. Are you just “consuming” the latest New York Times best-seller or do you actually want to keep that timeless classic? Think well, because if you choose the latter, you never know when it can be deleted from your device…

Even though I picked Amazon and Kindle as the main example, the model is the same for many other stores (Apple, Google, etc.) and types of publications – including magazines, movies, comic books, etc. At least today I can download and keep academic papers in a multi-platform relatively “open” format (PDF). However, how long will it take until publishers want to start to change that? Imagine if you could only read the latest issue of your favorite journal through their dedicated app? What if the publisher goes out of business? What if their servers go kaputt?

I do want to go all-digital. I am slowly getting rid of all my physical books in favour of their digital counterparts. I love the convenience that it brings. And I’m not alone. But these questions trouble me. I am not comfortable investing time and money on simple access to content – publishers come and go, but my digital library should survive longer than that. And yes, I should be able to pass it on to whoever I want in my will!

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