The link below is to an article that looks at reading books with toddlers – print or digital?
The link below is to yet another article taking a look at the print versus digital books debate.
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.
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
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 link below is to an article that considers the role of the book review in the current digital age.
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The link below is to an article and infographic that takes a look at libraries in the digital age.
The link below is to an article that considers the physical bookshop in the digital age.
The link below is to an article that considers the role of the Oxford English Dictionary in the digital age – can it survive?
Australia’s consumer laws aren’t adequately protecting Australians who buy digital products such as e-books and digital music. If a TV doesn’t work, or an iPod or computer is faulty, the law provides a remedy. The same is true for physical books and music media – but not for their online counterparts.
Under Australian law consumers are entitled to receive goods that are of acceptable quality and fit for their purposes, and that correspond with their description, among other legally enforceable consumer guarantees. But these guarantees apply only to “goods” and “services”.
How digital products fit (or don’t fit) into the goods and services categories has been debated for decades, and the law still hasn’t properly accommodated them.
Australia’s consumer laws went through a major update in 2010, but remain out of date. The digital world moves fast, but our consumer laws remain rooted in a system that assumes “goods” and “services” are the only types of trade. These laws still owe much to sale of goods legislation passed in the United Kingdom all the way back in 1893.
What are consumer laws?
The law generally expects that people and companies entering into contracts are able to look after their own interests. Consumer laws exist to provide additional legal protection to consumers, who are usually in an unequal bargaining position compared to the companies they deal with.
A consumer is someone who acquires goods or services that are ordinarily bought for personal, domestic or household use, or for a price of A$40,000 or less.
Consumer purchases include a range of items – TVs, iPods and computers are just some examples. Where a consumer purchases goods, the law requires that those goods comply with particular consumer guarantees, no matter what the terms and conditions of sale say.
If a new “smart TV” won’t connect to wifi, or if an iPod or computer’s battery doesn’t last as long as it should, the consumer guarantees provide a remedy.
It was during the 1980s and through to the 2000s that initial questions arose over how the law treated software. The question at this time was whether software counted as “goods”. A series of court cases found that software was considered goods only if it was supplied within a tangible object – for example, on a disk (later, on a CD or DVD).
Because of this, when consumers started downloading software over the internet they were left without many protections. If software downloaded directly from the internet didn’t do what it was supposed to do, they might have no effective legal rights at all.
In 2010, with the Competition and Consumer Act, the definition of goods was finally amended to include “computer software”. But this still excludes many common digital products, such as e-books and digital music. These do not constitute “computer software” as the law understands it.
Recent court proceedings highlight the large gap in the Australian consumer law.
In 2016, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission brought a Federal Court case against Valve Corporation, alleging it misrepresented consumers’ rights concerning content bought through the Steam video game platform.
Justice Edelman found that Valve Corporation had supplied “goods”, being “computer software”, but also found that “non-executable data was not computer software”, and that such non-executable data could include “music and html images”.
In other words, the computer games were “goods” (attracting the law’s protection) because they were executable programs. This part of the Federal Court’s decision was not challenged in the Full Court of the Federal Court, which dismissed Valve Corp’s appeal in December 2017.
If this definition of computer software is applied in future cases, then there is a legal gap when it comes to other types of digital products. E-books and digital music (among others) require executable files to work, but aren’t themselves executable files, so would not constitute computer software.
If they don’t constitute computer software, they also aren’t goods under the law. And if they aren’t goods, consumers who acquire these digital products don’t obtain the protections and guarantees of Australia’s consumer laws.
The wider consequences of inequality in the law
Beyond this problem for consumers, this legal gap also creates an inequality for retailers. Retailers that deal in physical books and music (whether they are “bricks and mortar” or online) are required to comply with the guarantees and protections under Australian consumer law.
This means that businesses dealing in physical goods incur costs that those that sell only digital equivalents (apart from software) can avoid. Australia is in effect subsidising those who sell only digital products (many of them foreign companies) by not subjecting them to the same legal liabilities.
A simple legislative amendment can easily solve this problem. Rather than providing that goods includes “computer software”, a legal provision stipulating that goods include “computer software and other types of digital products” would capture the broader range of products we see in the marketplace today.
We can learn from the United Kingdom, where digital products are given their own dedicated consumer rights regime. The United Kingdom has a series of consumer rights applicable to the supply of goods, the supply of services, and also to the supply of digital content.
The link below is to another article taking a look at the National Library of Norway and its digital archive program.
The link below is to an article reporting on Norway’s sensible digital archive program for literature.