What You Need to Know About The Amazon Lawsuit

Iposman_167wv2_0f you’ve been following the latest news in the Publishing world, you might have heard that a class action lawsuit was recently filed in New York against Amazon and the Big Six publishers. This is a big deal and the outcome of the case will do a lot to determine the future of digital publishing, so it’s certainly worth getting all the facts. Here’s what we think you need to know about the lawsuit and how it might affect you, the self-publisher:

The suit was filed by three independent bookstores.

Posman’s Books is a famous independent New York city chain that operates out of Grand Central station, Rockefeller Plaza, and Chelsea Market in Manhattan. They’ve combined efforts with the Book House, a chain based in Albany, and Fiction Addiction, which is in Greenville, South Carolina.

The defendants, on the other hand, are the companies that make up the “big six”: Random House, Penguin, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan.

The lawsuit is primarily about DRM software in ebooks

Now, we know what you’re thinking: DRM, or digital rights management, is supposed to be a good thing for authors and publishers, right? Because electronic files are much easier to copy and pirate, DRM is supposed to protect the distributing rights of the sellers and ensure that they get compensated for their efforts.

Well, these bookstores argue that the DRM embedded in the files you get from any online bookstore are typically only accessible on one type of e-reader. If you bought your ebook from Amazon, for example, you need a Kindle or Kindle app to read it; if you bought it from Barnes and Noble, you need a nook; etc. If you want to transfer from one e-reader to another, then you’re pretty much out of luck. These bookstores argue that this gives sellers like Amazon an unfair monopoly (according to The Verge, Amazon controls at least 60 percent of the ebook market, with Barnes & Noble at 27 percent and Apple’s iBookstore at less than 10 percent) and that this practice shuts independent brick-and-mortar establishments out of being able to sell e-books entirely. They want to be able to sell what they call “open-source” ebooks without any attached DRM.

There is some disagreement about whether the lawsuit uses the term ‘DRM’ correctly

BoingBoing contributor and author Cory Doctorow has this to say about the wording of the lawsuit:

For some reason, they’re using “open source” as a synonym for “standardized” or “interoperable.” Which is to say, these booksellers don’t really care if the books are DRM-free, they just want them locked up using a DRM that the booksellers can also use.

There is no such thing as “open source” DRM — in the sense of a DRM designed to run on platforms that can be freely modified by their users. If a DRM was implemented in modifiable form, then the owners of DRM devices will change the DRM in order to disable it. DRM systems, including so-called “open” DRM systems, are always designed with some licensable element — a patent, a trademark, something (this is called “Hook IP”) — and in order to get the license you have to sign an agreement promising that your implementation will be “robust” (implemented so that its owners can’t change it). This is pretty much the exact opposite of “open source.”

Doctorow’s not wrong — “open source” is a philosophy that promotes free distribution and use of a particular piece of content. Specifically, “open source” typically refers to coding — if a code is open source, that means that anyone can go in and modify it to their liking, such that the ending result is a collaborative effort. This should sound familiar: it’s the guiding principle of Wikipedia, where anyone (provided they have a credible source) can edit the pages to reflect current events or recent developments in a particular subject.

So when Doctorow says that there’s no such thing as open source DRM or an open source ebook, he means that being able to go in and edit the text or the coding of an ebook would be a pretty ridiculous concept. You can’t edit a print book yourself after all, not really — short of writing in the margins, of course!

What happens if this lawsuit settles in favor of the bookstores?

It’s hard to say at this point, honestly. Presumably it will mean that ebooks will be easier to distribute and sell out of independent bookstores, so if you’re interested in creating and distributing your own ebook, then you’ll have more local outlets in which to do so. If you’re looking for the true DIY experience in self-publishing and don’t want to go to Createspace or Lulu to make your ebook, then this might be useful to you; however, if you’re using a program like Kindle Direct Publishing anyway, it might not make much of a difference.

It’s unlikely that this will happen, however.

Back again to The Verge for analysis:

These are moderately-sized independent bookstores suing some of the largest media corporations in the world and a technology giant whose flagship business would be essentially gutted. The charge that the publishers colluded with Amazon has to feel especially biting so soon after the US Department of Justice finally forced each of them to settle on charges that they colluded with each other and Apple against Amazon. Bookstores simply don’t have the firepower of the US government.

Certainly we’ll be keeping a close eye on the proceedings of this suit, so keep checking back for more updates. In the meantime, we hope this has been informative and want to know what you think about the news, so let us know in the comments!


2 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About The Amazon Lawsuit

  1. Pingback: A Digital Shift: Libraries, Ebooks and Beyond | BookWorks

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