The DoJ's e-Book Attack Solves Nothing

The Department of Justice's (DoJ's) lawsuit against Apple and the major publishers over pricing may be a big win for Amazon, but is it really much of a win for Kindle owners? Ultimately, the suit may help Amazon shave a few bucks off of e-book prices, but it's doing nothing to address real problems consumers face with e-books.

DRM and Lock-In

One of the largest real problems with e-books that consumers have is Digital Restriction Management (DRM). As Charlie Stross points out, DRM has worked in Amazon's favor, and poses no real benefit to consumers. Says Stross, "By foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers - and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony."

DRM makes it very complicated to do things that we've always taken for granted with books. Loaning books is either impossible or very complicated at best. Actual ownership of e-books? They're merely licensed, and that license can be revoked. DRM providers can also go out of business, and there's precedent for DRM providers shrugging their shoulders and abandoning DRM formats, which leaves users in the lurch.

Should the government legislate DRM away entirely? No. But it doesn't seem unreasonable that consumers receive some kind of protection for DRM-encumbered purchases.

Eternal Copyright

Thanks to the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, copyright protection has been extended to "life of the author, plus seventy years." For corporate works (such as works for hire, like this article), the term of copyright is 120 years. Thus, anything that is published in your lifetime is almost certainly not going to enter the public domain while you're alive.

The most immediate and obvious effect is that nothing is entering the public domain in the United States until 2019.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, it means that you won't be seeing works that would have been public domain on Project Gutenberg for some time.

But it doesn't just mean a lack of free books - it also makes it much harder to distribute or acquire materials that are no longer being actively published. A very small percentage of copyrighted materials are actively sold and distributed throughout the entire period of their copyright. This was always true, even when copyright was much shorter.

It also complicates any kind of adaptation or use of work still under copyright. At best, it makes it much more expensive to adapt or use existing work when authors and editors have to pay for work that should have been released to the public domain long ago. At worst, it's impossible to adapt or use works because the proper copyright owner can't be found or will not license the works under reasonable terms.

The effect on e-books? Thousands upon thousands of titles that could be converted to e-books will not be. This is because the copyright holder has no interest in converting the title, or because there's not a clear ownership of copyright in the first place.

This is something that should be addressed by Congress, though it's unlikely that it will do so.

Amazon's Relationship With Publishers

While the DoJ accuses Apple and publishers of price collusion, it's turning a blind eye to Amazon strong-arming publishers - for example, Amazon pulling Macmillan books over e-book prices, or dropping books by the Independent Publisher Group (IPG) to pressure it for more favorable terms. Let's not forget that Amazon is also becoming a publisher in its own right, putting even more pressure on its publishing "partners."

Amazon does not hold a monopoly position in the e-book market, but it carries enough weight to do significant damage to publishers if it refuses to carry their titles - particularly in the e-book market, where Amazon enjoys a hefty lead over rivals.

The effect of the DoJ's suit against Apple, et al., is basically a boost for Amazon. While Amazon may be able to offer lower prices in the short run, it seems likely to help Amazon maintain a dominant position in the market that's unfavorable to publishers, competitors and (ultimately) consumers.

If you're taking sides in the DoJ vs. Apple suit, you might want to think again. The DoJ isn't doing consumers a big favor here. Amazon isn't championing your interests by offering cut-rate pricing on Kindle e-books, and the publishers aren't (necessarily) acting against the long-term interests of the consumer by trying to establish a right to price books how they see fit.

Time will tell whether the DoJ can prove that Apple, et al., actually colluded rather than arrived at the agency model independently. Meanwhile, it doesn't look like the government is addressing any real problems in the e-book market.