The Anti-Ownership Ebook Economy

published on 2023/07/13

Have you ever noticed that you can’t really “buy” an ebook? Sure, when you click that “Buy Now” button on your ereader, tablet, or phone, it feels like a complete, seamless transaction. But the minute you try to treat your ebook like a physical book – say by sharing it with a friend, selling it to someone else, donating it to a school library, or sometimes even reading it offline, reality sets in. You can’t do any of those things.

With most ebooks, even if you think you “own” them, the publisher or platform you bought them from will say otherwise. Publishers and platforms insist that you only buy a license to access the books, not the rights to do anything else with them. And because platforms like Amazon and Apple control most of the technology we use to read ebooks, their opinion often dictates the reality of the ebook ecosystem. Beyond controlling books, these platforms can also do several things no physical bookseller has ever had the power to do. They can track your reading habits, stop you from reselling or lending a book, change the book’s content, and delete it from your digital library altogether – even after you’ve bought it. This doesn’t happen in the print book market, where you can still feel confident that when you buy a book, it’s yours to share, sell, or simply read without it being tracked or censored.

Something happened when we shifted to digital formats that created a loss of rights for readers. Pulling back the curtain on the evolution of ebooks offers some clarity to how the shift to digital left ownership behind in the analog world.

NYU Engelberg