Blurring the Lines in Digital Content Shifting

I ran into a dilemma today that I never expected to run into and it has to do with fairness when it comes to digital property.

I’m an advocate of time-shifting and space-shifting content. When I say content I mean books, movies, TV-shows, games, whatever. Time-shifting refers to the process of utilizing something at a different time than it’s origin. In terms of media, the old analog is taping a show to watch later. These days it means Tivo, Netflix or Hulu. You’re simply watching something at a time other than when it was broadcast on television.

Space-shifting is slightly different. Instead of moving whatever you’re wanting to watch to another time, you’re moving it to another medium. I want to watch this television show on my phone, or on my computer. It usually incorporates time-shifting, but not always.

I feel like this is not a big deal. If I want to watch a show on a Saturday on my phone instead of on Tuesday on the TV, I’m probably only making a few advertisers unhappy. But I’ve been doing that for years. I mute the TV when the ads come on, or I’ll walk out of the room. I never owned a Tivo, but if I had, I would’ve let it cut the commercials out all together. Advertisers have begun to respond by getting their commercials into the show via product placement. Seemingly the most intrusive ones being in NBC’s “Chuck” where I’m constantly being bombarded with Subway sandwiches and Captain Awesome talking about how awesome his Toyota mini-van is. I digress…

Because I feel like it’s not a big deal, I figure I can be somewhat flexible with the means by which I get stuff. If I own a copy of Ender’s Game that I legitimately bought, I see no problem downloading an epub version of it off the seedy underbelly of the Internet. I already own the book, and paid for it. If I want to read it in a loose-leaf notebook or on a digital device, I see it as my perogative to be able to do so.

So time shifting and space shifting has never really been a big deal to me. I got my second E-Reader this past Christmas, and I love it. I’ve been of the mind that if I own a physical copy of a book, then I ought to be able to read it on my reader. I figure I’ve compensated the publisher and author, and essentially bought the right to read the book.

But then, this morning I came upon this awkward situation: If I buy the book used, then I haven’t compensated the author or the publisher – only the bookstore I bought it from. If I believe in duly compensating the author and publisher, I’d need to go buy a new copy.

In the United States, we have a law that broadly protects the sale of copyrighted materials called “First Sale Doctrine”. Basically, it says that you can a piece of copyrighted material (a book, a movie, etc.) if you don’t own the copyright provided the material is yours. When you purchase a book, you’re purchasing the physical object itself, the ink on the pages, but not really the words themselves, or their arrangement. This is where the breakdown of copyright happens. There’s no obvious answer as to how to handle a work in the ethereal sense.

7 comments
  1. Well, in your example, *someone* has purchased that book new and compensated the publisher. And because they are no longer able to read the hard-copy, as long as they don’t download the e-book version of it saying, “Well, I bought that book 5 years ago, it’s okay,” then your space-shifting premise still works. Even better, the used book seller gets a little piece of the action. Of course, I’m not an author or publisher, so I’m not sure what they think about it. In my mind, you’re doing more than most and should be applauded.

    • I think you bring up a good point. The property left the hands of the previous owner. The digital ‘right’ would likewise have gone. When you sell a piece of software, you don’t get to keep your installation of it. A book ought to be treated the same way.

  2. Here’s what I think: By purchasing a physical book, you are paying to hold that book in your hands. If you want it in a different format (audio book, e-book, etc.) you need to pay for it again to pay for that format. You’ve requested, essentially, a different work, because the set up and format is different and required different effort and output by the publisher. What I do not like is when Amazon yanks back a digital copy of a book that you paid for.
    And about used books: You usually don’t pay full price for full books, so you’re really paying a transaction price: the price it costs the used book seller to evaluate, clean, shelve, stock, and resell the book to you. (My mom used to work for a used book store. In fact, they worked exclusively with used books.) The publishing company hasn’t had to print a second copy of the book, so they don’t get compensated, and rightly so. The author is the only one who should feel sad, but even that is minimal, I think. After all, if a work is good enough, then it will sell a number of new copies in order to fill the demand for used ones. Everyone gets happy!

    • This is interesting, and makes me wonder how far I can take my book before it steps out of that realm. With a CD (for instance), most of us push it in the computer and copy the data off of it. I think I can count the number of times I’ve used a CD in a CD player on two hands in the last 5 years. Is it the amount of work that I go through to accomplish the goal? Is it acceptable (or not) for me to slice the binding off and scan the book in?

      This issue popped up last year. Amazon included a feature in the Kindle 2 that allowed the device to “read” the book to you via text-to-speech software. It was a brilliant invention (IMO). The Authors Guild countered that this technology infringed on their members’ rights because the works licensed for the Kindle did not include licensing for audio books. The reaction of the public at the Authors Guild was somewhat outraged wondering if they were the target of potential copyright violation whenever they read their children a bedtime story. The National Federation of the Blind expressed anger that the Authors Guild was segregating the blind population from the seeing.

      Where’s the line drawn that I need to pay for another license?

      DRM raises another issue within this one. Suppose I buy a Kindle and I buy my ebook, and then a year or two later I buy a Nook. The ebook is compatible with both devices, but the DRM is not. Am I entitled to use my book on the device of my choosing or do I have to buy it again. This to me is the physical equivalent of having to buy a copy for the living room, and one of the bedroom. (An idea which media companies I’m sure would love

  3. While I agree with the fact it would probably be unfair to be expected to get a digital copy of a published work if you own or purchase a used book, I do think we should be able to add a digital copy for a small fee when buying a new physical book. Yes, the output is different format but to spend nearly twice the price to have a physical and digital copy is a bit absurd; the vast majority of time put into the work is identical across both mediums. Likewise I also believe if you purchase a new CD from Amazon I think a digital copy should be available for download at little or no additional charge.

    • One of the things that I’ve seen distributors doing to get Blu-ray into the hands of people is that they’ve started selling combo-packs with Blu-Ray, DVD and the promise of a Digital copy. It’s not a bad idea, but would fail at the same level of used materials. The physical book would move, but the digital copy would not.

  4. When you buy a physical copy with a digital copy you are basically buying two copies. The media companies consider the digital copy a license similar to software. They SEVERELY limit the ability to transmit it, and they call it the “License Agreement”. What needs to happen is that the old non-technological judges in our court system need to get with the times and decide some REAL case law on the matter of digital content intellectual property. The large media companies want access and transmission severely limited in both physical and digital forms. The public doesn’t want access limited unfairly. Many years ago the public won that battle. In my opinion hopefully we will win again when judges become informed and make an intelligent decision.

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