I believe there are some similarities between the emergence of the eBook and the printing press. Both are transformative technologies whose ability to disseminate information to larger audiences marked a milestone in literacy and information access. While expensive and cumbersome in their own ways when they first came out, each innovation cycle has reduced the cost and has increased material availability through a variety of means. Gutenberg’s press would ultimately revolutionize the printed word by mechanizing the process; eBooks will revolutionize the publishing world by removing the remaining barriers to written content.
The difference that is emerging is how they are treated when it comes to rights of ownership. The first-sale doctrine does not apply to eBooks; one cannot re-sell or lend a title that they legally purchased. The limitations of eBook formats and ereaders themselves mean that some titles are not universally accessible. Furthermore, the prevalent winds of eBooks is leaning towards a licensing format in which control over one’s personal library has been ceded to another, be it corporation, author, or middle man content provider.
This is not an acceptable situation.
This is a correctable situation but it will require the combined efforts of all parties. It is an effort that is bigger than the librarian profession and the publishing field for it encompasses the entire spectrum of literature, from the author to the end user and all the people and institutions between. It will not be a sprint but a marathon where the ideal end result is a model that allows all to thrive. It will not be clean nor easy, but it is a process that has to happen. Not simply for ourselves, but for the future of literature and information access.
That is why the eBook User’s Bill of Rights is so important. And this is why we must act. For if you thought that the question in the title of this post was absurd, it could be a cruel reality in the new eBook world unless action is taken now. It is not something that librarians can pass up.