Buying things in a digital age

A Picture of a eBook

Image by Jorgex via Wikipedia

Remember when paying money for something meant that you then owned it? Some things still work that way, physical things like clothes, dishes and towels. What about that last computer game you bought? Surely you own that, right. Wrong! You actually bought a license to use the software. You don’t own anything. And you even agreed to it, though I bet you didn’t read the fine print on that licensing agreement. You just clicked “Accept” when prompted because it wouldn’t let you load the program unless you did.

When you buy a real object, you can later dispose of it however you please. You could donate your used clothes to a thrift shop. You could give them away. Or you can loan them to a friend. If the thing you bought happened to be a book, a real paper and ink book, you can read it, loan it to someone else, donate it to a school or a library or sell it at your yard sale. But what about ebooks? Sure, it may be convenient to read them on your fun gadget. The reader is probably lighter and more portable than the paper version. But you can’t let anyone else read it, even your spouse, without handing over your e-reader. That leaves you without a means to read your next book. You certainly can’t donate a good book to your kid’s classroom or to a charity book sale.

Steacie Science and Engineering Library at Yor...

Image via Wikipedia

While these issues probably are minor to you and won’t change your mind about e-books, they have bigger implications for libraries. A library can’t just buy an e-book the way they buy a physical book. In order to be able to lend the book, the library must have an agreement with the publisher and publishers would rather have you buy the e-book than have you borrow it from the library. It’s all much more complicated that it would seem to the average consumer. But what gets lost if libraries can’t provide access to books for everyone? Do books become the privilege of those who can afford to buy the reader and the e-books? What happens when an entire segment of our population becomes cut off from access to books?

So, next time you click “Agree” for a license or download an e-book, think about the difference between ownership and use rights and the implications for a democratic society.

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About booksnquilts

I'm the Children's Services Coordinator for the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Central Virginia.
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