Generic (actually proposed HP) e-book reader deviceOver the weekend I found this story on e-books on the Gizmodo blog (please ignore the crude graphic) that reminds us that the e-book files we download don’t really belong to us the way a 3-D book does. If we buy an Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader device, for example, and “purchase” the electronic book files from the online bookstore, we can’t sell them to someone else. We can’t even move them to other electronic devices we own.

The non-portability of electronic books is the publishing industry’s response to music piracy. While music has long been available without digital rights management (DRM) protections, publishers made certain early on that all bestsellers – or even books that might by some remote chance become bestsellers – are so heavily locked down that they can’t be printed or moved between devices. J.K. Rowling’s attorneys have refused to allow her publishers to release any of the Harry Potter books as e-books.

The only e-book files without this kind of DRM protection are public domain e-book files – the kind found through the Project Gutenberg Web site – and those voluntarily released by their creators through the Creative Commons strategy.

The Gizmodo post discusses what you get when you “buy” an e-book:

In the fine print that you “agree” to, Amazon and Sony say you just get a license to the e-books—you’re not paying to own ’em, in spite of the use of the term “buy.” Digital retailers say that the first sale doctrine—which would let you hawk your old Harry Potter hardcovers on eBay—no longer applies. Your license to read the book is unlimited, though—so even if Amazon or Sony changed technologies, dropped the biz or just got mad at you, they legally couldn’t take away your purchases. Still, it’s a license you can’t sell.

But is the license truly legal? Here we’re on the cutting edge of the legal system. When you buy a 3-D book you can turn around and sell it. The legal consultants Gizmodo checked with say that it’s very possible for “buyers” of e-books to resell them or (attention, library folks) lend them. I think we have a way to go before the legal rights of e-book “owners” have been fully determined.