Do we really own our digital possessions?


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Rebecca Mardon, Cardiff University

Microsoft has announced that it will close the books category of its digital store. While other software and apps will still be available via the virtual shop front, and on purchasers’ consoles and devices, the closure of the eBook store takes with it customers’ eBook libraries. Any digital books bought through the service – even those bought many years ago – will no longer be readable after July 2019. While the company has promised to provide a full refund for all eBook purchases, this decision raises important questions of ownership.

Digital products such as eBooks and digital music are often seen to liberate consumers from the burdens of ownership. Some academics have heralded the “age of access”, where ownership is no longer important to consumers and will soon become irrelevant.

Recent years have seen the emergence of an array of access-based models in the digital realm. For Spotify and Netflix users, owning films and music has become unimportant as these subscription based services provide greater convenience and increased choice. But while these platforms present themselves clearly as services, with the consumer under no illusion of ownership, for many digital goods this is not the case. So to what extent do we own the digital possessions that we “buy”?

Fragmented ownership rights

The popularity of access-based consumption has obscured the rise of a range of fragmented ownership configurations in the digital realm. These provide the customer with an illusion of ownership while restricting their ownership rights. Companies such as Microsoft and Apple present consumers with the option to “buy” digital products such as eBooks. Consumers often make the understandable assumption that they will have full ownership rights over the products that they pay for, just as they have full ownership rights over the physical books that they buy from their local bookstore.

We buy eBooks just as we do paperbacks, and yet the former are subject to very different terms of ownership.
Oleksiy Mark/Shutterstock

However, many of these products are subject to end user licence agreements which set out a more complex distribution of ownership rights. These long legal agreements are rarely read by consumers when it comes to products and services online. And even if they do read them, they are unlikely to fully understand the terms.

When purchasing eBooks, the consumer often actually purchases a non-transferable licence to consume the eBook in restricted ways. For instance, they may not be permitted to pass the eBook on to a friend once they have finished reading, as they might do with a physical book. In addition, as we have seen in the case of Microsoft, the company retains the right to revoke access at a later date. These restrictions on consumer ownership are often encoded into digital goods themselves as automated forms of enforcement, meaning that access can be easily withdrawn or modified by the company.

This is not a one-off occurrence. There have been many similar instances that raise questions of ownership. Just last month, social media site MySpace admitted to losing all content uploaded before 2016. Blaming a faulty server migration, the loss includes many years’ worth of music, photos and videos created by consumers.

Last year, after customers complained of films disappearing from Apple iTunes, the company revealed that the only way to guarantee continued access was to download a local copy – which, some opined, goes against the convenience of streaming. Amazon hit the headlines way back in 2009 for remotely erasing “illegally uploaded” copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from consumers’ Kindle e-reading devices, much to consumers’ dismay and anger.

Illusions of ownership

Once you purchase a physical book, you own it entirely.
LStockStudio/Shutterstock

My research has found that many consumers do not consider these possibilities, because they make sense of their digital possessions based on their previous experiences of possessing tangible, physical objects. If our local bookstore closed down, the owner wouldn’t knock on our door demanding to remove previously purchased books from our shelves. So we do not anticipate this scenario in the context of our eBooks. Yet the digital realm presents new threats to ownership that our physical possessions haven’t prepared us for.

Consumers need to become more sensitised to the restrictions on digital ownership. They must be made aware that the “full ownership” they have experienced over most of their physical possessions cannot be taken for granted when purchasing digital products. However, companies also have a responsibility to make these fragmented ownership forms more transparent.

Often there is a logical business reason for such restrictions. For instance, since digital objects are infinitely reproducible – they can be duplicated quickly and easily at negligible costs – restrictions on sharing are a means to protect the profits of both distribution companies (Microsoft or Apple, for example) and media producers (including the authors and publishers of an eBook). However, these restrictions must be stated clearly and in simple terms at the point of purchase, rather than hidden away in the complex legal jargon of end user licence agreements, obscured by the familiar terminology of “buying”.The Conversation

Rebecca Mardon, Lecturer in Marketing, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Friedrich Ulfers Prize


The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2019 Friedrich Ulfers Prize, Susan Bernofsky.

For more visit”
https://publishingperspectives.com/2019/03/festivan-neue-literatur-ulfers-prize-susan-bernofsky-gifted-attentive-exceptional-rivka-galchen/

Tribute to biggest collection of artists’ books in the southern hemisphere



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‘Witkrans’ by Ena Carsten (1998), on exhibition at Wits Art Museum, 2019.
Charles Leonard

David Paton, University of Johannesburg

There is a very special section of artworks known as artists’ books. These are artworks in the form of books rather than books about art. South African art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg began collecting in this field in the early 1970s. He recently donated this world-renowned collection – and the biggest in the southern hemisphere – to Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg. Part of the collection, which includes more than 3 000 artworks plus thousands of additional items related to the field of book arts, is on exhibition. The Conversation Africa’s Charles Leonard spoke to David Paton, co-curator of the exhibition.


How would you describe artists’ books?

Artists’ books are artworks in the form of books that explore and unpack their own material being; their bookness. In other words, artists’ books are self-conscious about their function, drawing attention to, as book artist and scholar Johanna Drucker states in The Century of Artists’ Books, the very conventions by which books normally efface their identity.

This reflexive awareness includes a book’s material, shape, structure and navigability. Thus, artists’ books are not sketchbooks, journals or portfolios and certainly not books about, or on, artists. Conventional notions of artists’ books usually include only objects that function as books and exclude sculptural objects, book-like objects, digital books and ephemera.

Give us a brief history of artists’ books.

The rise of artists’ books is a phenomenon of the 1960s and ‘70s in the US. It began with the democratic photographic multiples of Ed Ruscha such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966).

Another maker of artists’ books at this time in Europe was German-Swiss conceptual artist Dieter Roth.

Before this, however, is a rich history of book arts which includes Livres d’Artistes which are fine, limited-edition books incorporating illustrations of famous texts or poems. An example is Henri Matisse’s etchings which accompany Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé and published in 1932.

Before this are the Futurist and Russian Constructivist books by, for example, El Lissitzky and Ilia Zdanevich (Iliazd). Perhaps the most famous early artists’ book is Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars’s Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) considered by many to be the first example of simultaneity in art.

In South Africa, perhaps the earliest exemplars are Phil du Plessis’s Hulde Uit 1970, an irreverent addendum to the journal Wurm 12 (1970) and Walter Battiss’s Male Fook Book (begun in 1973).

Who is Jack Ginsberg?

Jack is an accountant by profession but is known for his philanthropic work and support of the arts in South Africa. His collection of artworks by Walter Battiss formed the majority of the 700 pieces on the exhibition “Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself” held at the Wits Art Museum in 2016.

Jack then donated the works to Wits Art Museum’s permanent holdings which now forms the nucleus of a major Battiss Archive. In 2017, a small portion of Jack’s internationally renowned collection of artists’ books was showcased at the “Booknesses: Artists’ Books from the Jack Ginsberg Collection
exhibition at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Despite this being only a small proportion of his collection, they constituted one of the largest exhibitions of artists’ books held globally. Jack is the director of The Ampersand Foundation a non-profit charitable trust. It supports residencies by South African artists and others working in the arts at the foundation’s apartment in New York.

The Foundation also supports local artists by buying their artworks and donating them to museums and galleries.

Describe the works he donated to Wits Art Museum?

Jack has been collecting artists’ books as well as books on the field, what he calls “the archive on artists’ books” since the 1970s. In 2014 he was one of 10 international collectors of artists’ books (and one of only three from outside of the US) invited to participate in Behind the Personal Library: Collectors Creating the Canon at the Centre for Book Art, New York.

The Wits Art Museum collection is the envy of private collectors, scholars, museums and academic collections globally. It consists of some of the cannon of international exemplars as well as contemporary work from North and South America, Europe, Russia and Asia, Australasia and Africa.

It is also the only collection of South African artists’ books anywhere in the world as Jack has, single-handedly, promoted and supported the book arts in this country. Books that Jack has donated to the Wits Art Museum include most of those mentioned in the “history of artists’ books”. It includes Kara Walker’s remarkable paper engineered Freedom, a Fable as well as books by African artists such as Atta Kwami and Marc Wonga Mancoba.

Jack’s extensive collection also comprises fascinating categories such as popular culture; fine bindings; presses and publishers; ephemera, theses and catalogues along with books with unusual materials (such as glass, cork and metal) and structures (such as pop-up and down and tunnel books).

What’s the significance of the donation?

Jack’s collection of artists’ books and, importantly, his archive, is considered by many to be one of the most comprehensive and accessible collections of materials devoted to the field of the book arts anywhere in the world. Together they constitute some 8 500 items donated to the university.

Making these items publicly available at Wits Art Museum as well as the opportunities for artists, designers and scholars to view and access these bookworks, objects and archival materials is an exciting, unique and timely gift to the South African art world.The Conversation

David Paton, Senior Lecturer in Visual Art, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.