E-Book Readers Hope To Come Home For The Holidays

Matt Lonsdale is a JD candidate at Dalhousie University

The New York Times is predicting that this holiday season could be the time that electronic book readers, or e-readers, finally break into the mainstream. As consumers become accustomed to the idea and retailers drop prices, more people may choose to skip over old-fashioned paper and ink books and go electronic. Over the last two years, digital book sales have jumped from accounting for only 1 percent of total book sales to accounting for up to 9 percent. The article quotes Peter Hildick-Smith, the president of a book market research company as saying “[T]his is the tipping-point season for e-readers, there’s no question… A lot more books are going to be sold in e-book format. It also means that a lot fewer people are going to be shopping in bookstores.”

The convenience of electronic books does come at a price. Consumers may discover that the rights and privileges they’re accustomed to as purchasers of traditional books simply don’t exist when those same books are purchased electronically. When Amazon’s Kindle e-reader was first released back in 2007, a post here on IP Osgoode examined how the Digital Rights Management scheme it employed effectively prohibited users from re-selling used copies of books they had purchased or loaning copies of books to friends. These activities had previously been protected in copyright law by the “doctrine of exhaustion” (or “first-sale doctrine”): once an author had sold a copy of a work, it was up to the customer to decide what happened to that copy. The point that digital books are more than just electronic copies of paper books was hammered home in 2009 when, without warning, Amazon deleted legitimately purchased copies of George Orwell’s novels “1984” and “Animal Farm” from customer’s Kindles. The e-books had been placed on Amazon by digital publisher MobileReference and were removed after Amazon discovered MobileReference did not have the rights to sell digital copies of the book. Customers were naturally upset: “I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased”.

From a copyright perspective, one upside to the rising popularity of e-readers is that interest in public domain works (works for which copyright has expired, or works which have been explicitly placed in the public domain by their authors) may be increased. At least one e-reader comes bundled with 100 public domain books, and websites offering archives of public domain materials have been around for years. While readers might be put off by the idea of reading a book on their computer, devices which allow them to enjoy these works for free in the comfort of their favorite chair may increase their popularity.