Do You Really Own That eBook?

By Kate Sheehan |

Anyone who has watched even a few minutes of one of the disturbing number of hoarding shows on television and immediately felt the urge to clean house will be familiar with the panicky feeling one's own belongings can engender. Librarians on twitter are devotees of Unclutterer and Zen Habits and nothing brings librarians together like talking about weeding. Except, perhaps for collection development. Ownership is a fraught proposition.

Librarians are familiar with the "I loved this book so much I went out and bought it" phenomenon, where readers enjoy a borrowed book enough to make the leap to ownership. Anecdotally, book sellers are now witnessing a similar phenomenon: readers who purchase the print book after enjoying it on their e-readers. The purchase of a physical object makes an intuitive sense to us that license agreements do not.

Do we own the stuff on our hard drives?On Gigaom, Matthew Ingram asks "What happens to ownership as the world goes digital?" For bibliophiles or music lovers, the decluttering urge often stops at the bookshelf or CD rack. The rise of digital music has meant that people who used to cover walls with row after row of CDs now talk about how many gigabytes (or terabytes) of music they own. Even for casual music listeners Spotify, as Ingram points out, takes streaming to another level. But Spotify, for all of its whiz-bang excitement (in desperation, I signed up for Klout to get an invite), only provides access to its catalog. It's an extension of the radio, the way Netflix is an extension of the video store or HBO. Music and movies are things we consume in a stream, even when we own a disc.

Ingram sees Amazon's new book lending service as streaming for books, though I'd say that's a generous interpretation - streaming implies at least a medium quantity of content and while we consume books more slowly than we do music or movies, I'd call one a month more of a trickle. Ingram suggests that book ownership could become the province of cranks and weirdos (I see a future Hoarders franchise here), though his newspaper analogy is somewhat flawed - newspapers are not created with permanence in mind, hence the cheap paper and smudgy ink - while books are designed as somewhat more permanent objects, mass market paperbacks and pulps notwithstanding. Nitpicking aside, he's touching on the changing nature of ownership.

Even just a few years ago, the idea of paying money for digital objects seemed strange. When Second Life debuted, news stories often highlighted that people paid real money on fake stuff in Second Life. Now, spending money in a game isn't quite so odd, nor is paying for access to a news website. When I first bought an iPhone, I found a real divergence of opinion on paying for apps, with quite a few people telling me they never buy apps if they can help it. Kathryn Greenhill provided me with the analogy I still use: apps usually cost about as much as a candy bar, so if you think an app will give you as much pleasure as a candy bar, go for it. Treating an app like a confection makes the question of expenditure easier to answer.

We're either disconnecting ownership from objects or we're accepting the loss of ownership in favor of licensing. Ingram concludes, "...rental or streaming of content such as books, movies and music has a lot of potential benefits: It can save money and be more convenient, and it can free us from having to worry about where the content is. But at the same time, it also removes certain rights and abilities that we’ve grown used to — just as renting a home instead of owning does — and that is something we are all going to have to learn more about as the world becomes increasingly digital."

Ownership isn't always crucial to individuals. I suspect most of us have a tiered system of consumption: books I'll borrow from the library, books I'll buy in paperback only when I'm stuck in an airport, books I'll buy in paperback, books I must buy in hardcover. Likewise, I imagine we all have a theater threshold for films that we must see on the big screen. Just as our patrons are often happy with "satisficing" search results, access is often a decent enough substitute for ownership for some.

For libraries, ownership is, of course, a more important matter. Projects like Douglas County Library's collaboration with the Colorado Independent Publishers Association and Open Library's fascinating lending program are providing viable routes to owning digital items. The change in how we understand what it means to own a cultural artifact is just beginning. As our patrons cross our thresholds, ereaders in tow, librarians have an opportunity to shape their community's understanding of ownership versus access, one reader at a time.


CC-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user walknboston