The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing ebook

I’m a big fan of ebooks. I bought a Sony PRS-505 way back in 2008 (still in full working order). I was  on a task group for the local authority looking into the introduction of ebooks to public libraries across the county and was an enthusiastic advocate for their introduction.  Last year, as a reward for completing the MSc in Information and Library Studies, I treated myself to a Nexus 7 – a device I have used for a mixture of social networking and reading both books and magazines.  I am, I think it is fair to say, enthusiastic about the format.  Bearing all that in mind, what I am about to write is, for me, a stark reminder of one of the serious problems with ebooks.

Last year, I bought a copy of Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy“.  It’s an excellent book exploring the influence of the market and its impact on society (go read it).  This morning I switched on my Nexus to have a flick through it, it came up in a conversation last night and I was going to recommend it to a friend, only to discover that whilst it was listed it could not be read.  Initially I thought I’d made an error, so I went online and headed to the “My Books” section on Google Play.  It had mysteriously vanished from the list of books I had bought.

Listed on the Nexus

Error message when attempting to view title on the Nexus.

Listed in the Play Store on the Nexus

Item not found.

Listed on the “My books” shelf in Google Books.

I have no idea why this book has mysteriously vanished from my library.  I’m not sure if there is a copyright issue or whether the item has been temporarily removed for whatever reason.  However, regardless of reasoning, I have not been informed by Google of the reasons why I can no longer access this particular title.  But, more troubling than not being informed, I cannot access a book that I have paid for.

Of course, this is not the first time that a book has been removed from an ereader device.  Back in 2009, in a move of stunning irony, George Orwell’s 1984 was removed from Kindle devices as “illegal copies” had been added to the store, raising a whole series of questions around the extent to which a corporation can ‘pull’ books from your library.  This would not happen with a print title.  Neither Amazon nor any other vendor would turn up at your house and demand to inspect your library as it believes you had bought an ‘illegal’ copy of a book.  Once you purchase a print edition, it is yours. And therein lies the difference between ebook and print (aside from the obvious).

In most cases, ebooks do not belong to you. You do not own it, you are purchasing a license to access that ebook, which is very different.  The only way you can ensure that the ebook you own can legitimately be claimed as yours is if the Digital Rights Management (DRM) is stripped out of it. So long as DRM is built into the text, it is never really yours and can be removed or reclaimed at any moment.  As a result, you have no control over the content whatsoever. Indeed, the terms of service for Google Books clearly state:

If Google or the applicable copyright holder loses the rights to provide you any Digital Content, Google will cease serving such Digital Content to you and you may lose the ability to use such Digital Content.

My copy of “What Money Can’t Buy” has clearly fallen victim to Google (or the copyright holder) losing the rights to provide the digital content, meaning that I can no longer access the text, despite purchasing access to it at more or less the same price as a print copy.

Now, I guess in many respects I shouldn’t be surprised by all this.  As I noted at the beginning, I have owned an e-reader for some time and I am well aware of the perils and pitfalls of ebooks embedded with restrictive and regressive DRM. However, it is an annoying reminder (as if needed) that ebooks do not belong to the reader, but to the vendor.  You are merely paying a fee to borrow it from Google or from Amazon or from Waterstones for as long as they permit you to borrow it.  It remains the case that if you want to purchase a book and be sure that you can pick it up and flick through it whenever you wish for as long as you draw breath, you are better off buying it in print.  At least until DRM becomes an embarrassing footnote in the history of the ebook.