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The Reading Poll

By Steve Jones,

This editorial was originally published on July 24, 2009. It is being re-run as Steve is out on holiday.

I've written and blogged quite a bit about how much I like reading, and specifically my experiences with the Kindle and e-readers. I started with "Should I Buy a Kindle?" last year, and have continued to update people with my experiences, giving you some thoughts on what I've thought about the entire e-reading experience.

In the past week there have been a few very interesting things happen. First there was the release of a Barnes & Noble based e-reader, which is available on multiple devices (Blackberry, Mac, iPhone, PC) and has a large inventory of books available for it. I've tried the reader on the PC, iPhone, and Blackberry, with different experiences on each (blogs coming on the other devices). It's interesting, and it definitely gives me a choice.

As I've been discussing it with my wife, however, she has different perspectives. She tolerates the Kindle, but doesn't like the iPhone/Blackberry experience, and says she just wouldn't read that way. But she also doesn't read that much in terms of books, maybe 5 or so a year.

The other big news this past week was Amazon removing content from users' Kindle devices because of a copyright issue. Apparently a self-service application was used by a publisher to upload George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm to the Amazon system, where it was sold to some people. When Amazon was informed that this publisher did not have rights to sell the book, they removed it from their system, removed it from users' Kindles, and refunded the sales price. However they didn't explain why the content was removed.

So for this Friday's poll, I wanted to take the temperature from people about a few issues. Actually I have two polls:

How many books do you read a year? (technical and non-technical)

How much of a danger to individual rights is an online, wired platform?

What I'm asking in the first question is to get an idea of how much the audience reads. I know it's not for everyone, and while I read a lot, it's mostly fiction. It's a release, enjoyment factor for me. My total count was about 50, though I blew by that with the Kindle. That device enabled me to read more, and so I was probably on pace for about 70 books with the Kindle. That was a combination of fiction and non-fiction, business type books. I typically in the last few years have only read 3-4 technical books  a year on top of that (I know, shame on me).

The second question is harder, but I'm wondering how people feel  about sales, ownership, and licensing. It's easy to look at just music, or reading, but I worry about the broader picture, including software. Artists/publishers/creators should be paid for their work. I think it's only fair, but I also think that consumers of works have rights as well. We don't just buy a "license" to the software, book, or movie. If we do, it's a perpetual license since I don't think that Microsoft can stop me from running Windows 95 in 2040 just because they don't support it or want me to upgrade. Likewise I'm not sure that Disney can ever prevent me from watching a VHS tape of Toy Story in 50 years (assuming I have a VCR).

But that's what Amazon did, and it's absolutely a violation of the spirit of business as well as (from what I see) a violation of their terms of service. This has been an issue with TiVO/Dish Network,  and it will continue to be an issue in other cases as there is a connection between the platform and a retailer. My view is that connection is what is best about the Kindle, but it apparently is also the worst thing. If Amazon, or a court, can force actions through this link, it feels like a fundamental violation of the 4th Amendment (in the case of a court).

Or is it? If you purchased a stolen car (or other good), I think you would have to return the goods. Indeed, as I've searched some legal precedents, it appears that's the case. An old English law posting on Stolen Goods says that when the thief is convicted, the goods must be returned to the original owner. That's if you were not aware the goods were stolen; if you were, you have violated the law.

As much as it stinks, if you traffic in stolen goods, or perhaps criminal goods is a better term, you lose out on your purchase price unless you seek restitution from the party who sold the item to you. It seems as though the problems are with digital goods since there doesn't seem to be a loss of goods from the original owner. There also is a huge distribution channel problem in that one copy of "illegal bits" can be sold to thousands of people.

Personally I believe that 1984 was chosen specifically because of the topic and to test what might happen. And in my opinion, Amazon failed the test, not because this is not what might have been ordered, but because of the way it was handled. Without a conviction, there is no "search and seizure" allowed. Stolen goods aren't that until a thief is convicted, or in this case, a copyright violator is determined by a court. And without informing consumers of the reasoning, it feels as though Amazon has violated their trust.

Steve Jones


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