How eBooks should work

All eBook distribution systems should be subject to the same regulations (mandated by law).

Regulations should be:

  • Transfer of ownership – always allowed, but with a minimum period of ownership to prevent abuse (say, 1 month).
  • Transfer between devices owned by the same person (even across different services owned by different companies, provided that both companies provide the same material, excepting only major differences in content*) – always allowed, unlimited with no restrictions, and never otherwise prejudicing the nature or quality of the service (or the relationship between the company and its licensee) in any way, should take only moments (no more than, say, 30 seconds).

* “Major differences in content”

In all cases where content is licensed sometimes as a whole, and sometimes in part (and perhaps to different companies), OR where it is sometimes licensed alone and sometimes with additional material, the content should be addressable by part (where each part constitutes a component that is always either present in total or not present) and each addressable component should be individually transferrable between devices (and between owners) as above. This is to prevent the situation where additional content is added in order to prevent transfer to a rival company’s devices where part of the content is provided but the additional content is not.

The software should in addition be set up to make it easy to transfer exactly the intersection of the components of a given work sold as a unit provided by the sending service with the components provided by the receiving service, and also to transfer the components back to the sending service if and when needed and reconstitute them into the original work, even after they have undergone arbitrary transfers to and from other services, and even if they are transferred back from a third service, whether they come back in part or in whole. In addition, components transferred in this way must always be just as easily accessible to the user on the receiving service as they are on the sending service, and they will be considered to constitute a single “work” while residing on the second service, and while involved in (and after) any transfers onward from, or back to, the second service. In addition, when only some of the components are present, these components must be just as easily accessible as when all components are present, such that the user experience is the same except for the omission of the missing components.

Copyright notices and other legal requirements should not be considered components for the purposes of this “law”, and must be present in all instantiations of any set of components, regardless of completeness. Determining the set of legal notices required for a given set of components shall be the responsibility of the company on whose systems the components in question currently reside.

Other content-distribution systems may benefit from the same framework, perhaps with further modifications to prevent the spirit of the law from being abused by the content licensing and/or distribution companies.

I’m still not sure I’ve got it all pinned down yet, but it’s a start at least.

The biggest problem I can see with this so far is the requirement for authors to release content in indivisible, unalterable “components” that must be invariant across different contracts. In particular, what if an author wants to publish several editions of a work… And what about the specifics, like what happens if one version contains a few corrections not present in another version… I think the latter would come under “minor differences” and therefore not matter. Editions should usually be regarded as separate works, except that it is true that they may share large parts of the work in common. I think it is probably most desirable that these constitute the same component wherever possible (where there are only minor differences), for maximum transferability. So the result will be that, in effect, all subsequent editions of a work will be considered to comprise the original work, plus a set of new whole components unique to the new edition… except where major changes have been made to the old components.

I think there will have to be something to require the companies to stock all editions of a work, rather than just the newest one, so that people’s old purchases don’t become unusable over time (perhaps as old content services go out of fashion – or indeed out of business).

That raises the other issue I have been thinking about, namely that of a company’s demise. To my mind there should be a government guarantee of the right to your content, even in the event of the providing company’s collapse. I don’t know what kind of guarantee, if any, is currently provided. But it certainly doesn’t seem right that you should pay for some content in the manner of a book purchase (which I think most people agree should provide you the content forever, provided you look after it), and then simply lose it because of market forces. Of course, the device transfer features should make this less of an issue, but there is still a risk here.


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