Print vs. eBook

Earlier this week, Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist” at the NY Times, wrote a column titled “E-Book Dodge.” Of course, the interwebs freaked out. Nathan Bransford’s post “A Matter of Ethics” is representative of the “omg! what was he thinking?!” side, and John Scalzi’s post “On How Many Times I Should Get Paid For a Book (By Readers)” (appropriately enough) is representative of the “ehh, whatever” side. Both posts have 100+ comments. It’ll take you a while to read them all if you choose to do so.

Anyhow, there’s a lot of rhetoric on both sides to wade through, but what these arguments (whether it be books or movies or music) come down to–the question that we really need to address–is what are you paying for? And here I don’t mean what do the corporations say you are paying for. I mean, what is the reason you are willing to fork over $x.00 of your hard-earned money for that movie/album/novel. Are you paying for (a license to view/listen to/read) the content (intellectual property) or are you paying for the object itself (personal property aka chattels) or are you paying for both? And is there there a difference between types of intellectual property and their delivery mechanisms?

Let’s look at music. Back in the day, albums came on things called records. Records were big, flat discs with grooves. Nowadays people re-purpose them into kitschy art projects. The discs were encased in sleeves. Record album artwork and liner notes were a Big Deal. Early cassettes were inferior to records, not only because of the quality of the music (hisssss!), but because you didn’t get the album art or liner notes. There was usually a thumbnail of the record cover on the front of the cassette and inside, just a list of the songs. Cassettes like this were extremely disappointing! Nevertheless, people bought them because they were convenient: you could play them in your car (if, you know, you were old enough to drive), or on your (faux) Walkman, or in your bedroom on your “ghetto blaster” (I know, soooo ’80s). Eventually, though, I guess someone figured out that cassette-buyers felt like they were being ripped off, and album art and liner notes came to cassettes. They also started to get more creative with the cassettes themselves (e.g. different colors, transparent plastic). Those cassettes were so superior to the ones that didn’t offer anything but the music. A lesson was learned from this, apparently, because CDs always came with proper album art and liner notes.

In both cases (cassettes & CDs), though, the inserts that contained the cover art & liner notes were (because of their size) considered inferior to the sleeves that records came in. And then came mp3s, which stripped away the object entirely. Ok, yes, mp3s can have (virtual) album art and liner notes attached, but… you’re not going to ever be able to turn them into a bowl or a lamp.  And, you also can’t (legitimately) sell them or trade them or give them away.

So, let’s break down what you get when you buy a…

  • Record: music (IP) + cover art/liner notes (IP) +  actual record & sleeve (personal property)
  • Cassette: music (IP) + cover art/liner notes (IP) + cassette, case, insert (personal property)
  • CD: music (IP) + cover art/liner notes (IP) + disc, case, insert (personal property)
  • mp3: music (IP) + (virtual) cover art/liner notes (IP)

When you buy a record or a cassette or a CD, you take ownership of the physical objects involved, but you do not own the music or the cover art or the liner notes. What you’ve purchased is a license to listen to the music, view the cover art, and read the liner notes. Ownership of the content remains with the creator (or if it’s work-for-hire, the corporation who did the hiring). Ergo, when you buy an mp3, because there’s no tangible object involved, there is no transfer of ownership. As with the record, cassette, and CD, what you’ve purchased is a license to listen to the music, view the cover art, and read the liner notes. There is a difference, however. When you buy tangible media, you can be assured that your license is in perpetuity—forever—or at least as long as the physical medium remains in good condition. Your cassette may wear out because you overplayed it, but no one from the band or the record company or SOCAN is going to sneak into your house and take it back. They might want to! but they can’t because it would require them to take your personal property back along with the license to listen to the music. With intangible media, there is no such barrier. The license to listen might have a built-in self-destruct, or the license might be revocable at any time (who reads all that fine print anyhow ;-)).

By most measures, the mp3 is an inferior product: the music quality generally isn’t as good as a CD, you don’t get anything tangible to hold in your hand, to look at or read, and you don’t own anything. Yet, at 99c per song, you’re paying pretty much the same amount for an album in mp3 format as you would for an album on  CD. And there’s no way of ever legitimately recouping any of your costs, should you ever have a need or desire to do so. You can’t sell your iTunes library at a yard sale. Plus, there’s that pesky potential that someone could just take your songs away.

So why buy mp3s? Well, we all know the answer to that. Convenience. Not only can you shop from home and get your music instantly, but you can easily play it in multiple places: your computer, your iPod, etc. The ability to carry your whole music collection with you at all times, to be able to effortlessly transfer it from one device to another when you upgrade (as you inevitably will), is, of course, the major appeal of digital media. When you think about it that way, it makes sense that people would be upset by any DRM that blocked them from transferring music from one device to another or put limits on how many devices they can listen to it on etc. People have been willing to give up the tangible aspects of a music purchase, as well as the security of that purchase (this is mine), because the benefits of digital media (when not tampered with) were a reasonable trade-off. DRM is an attempt to take away those benefits without providing anything in return. It’s lose-lose for the listener.

There’s one other issue, and that’s transferability (or convertibility). Back in the day, people would often buy the record (the superior product), then make a cassette copy to listen to in the car (or wherever portability was more important than quality). When CDs were introduced, the same thing happened. But because CDs are digital, they also had the advantage of being able to go the other way: they could also be turned into mp3s. Just like the cassette-copies, however, the mp3-copies are downgrades. I have to think that if you’re a music aficionado, the CD is still preferable to the digital download. Assuming no DRM, and the ability to transfer the CD’s contents  to your iPod or whatever, the only real disadvantage is that CDs take up space. But if you’re a music lover, you probably want your collection on display, you want to be able to grab an album off the shelf and analyze the cover art and study the lyrics and all that good stuff.

I guess my point is that there’s a tendency to say that people who want the tangible object as well as the content are fetishizing the object, and I think to some extent that’s true. But dismissing that desire solely as fetishization would be a mistake because there are obviously advantages to owning the tangible object in addition to having a license to listen to the content. You might care about those things or you might not; the point is that they do exist. It comes back to: what are you paying for?

At the same time, unless you’re a collector, one tangible version is probably plenty. When you think about the fact that some people have probably purchased record, 8-track (gasp), cassette, and CD versions of the same album, it’s understandable that they’re fed up with paying again for something they’ve already paid for five times over.