Ebook Ethics

Everything we do in life has ethical considerations, even something simple as buying books.  Ebooks represent a change, and that change has good and bad consequences.


  • Ebooks will put a lot of people out of work.  Bookstores may disappear like record stores.  This is a horrible consequence in these bad economic times.  The digital world is just more efficient than the analog world and that kills jobs.
  • Ebooks will also kill competition, reducing the number of businesses in the marketplace.  Amazon and Apple could theoretically take over all the book and music business from tens of thousands of small businesses.
  • Ebooks are anti-social.  Instead of buying books at a bookstore and meeting other people you order books directly.  Instead of sharing books with friends, readers are locked into a closed world of DRM.
  • Ebooks could damage cultural heritage and history.  Printed books can last for hundreds of years, and people value them, but ebooks probably have no lasting power at all.
  • Bookstores might become extinct which would be a huge cultural loss.
  • Book ownership is probably a deceptive concept and sellers like Amazon shouldn’t describe their ebooks are “for sale.”  To be honest, sellers should claim they are long term rentals until DRM copy protection is removed.


  • Ebooks are extremely environmental.  Wood pulp technology uses lots of water, energy and chemicals, and those chemicals get into the environment.  Printing takes both energy and chemicals.  Distributing books creates lots of carbon and other pollutants.  The carbon footprint of ebooks is almost zero.
  • Ebooks could mean more money for writers, editors and publishers because ebooks could do away with the used book market.  As long as DRM technology is successful, more readers would actually buy books, instead of borrowing them or buying used, which is more ethical for the writer and publisher.
  • Ebooks might encourage more reading and literacy because of their convenience and possibly make reading more appealing to young people because ebooks are available on smart phones, an essential device for kids.
  • Ebooks could enhance cultural heritage and history.  It’s quite easy to load up an ebook reader with the great books of the western world.  Every child or family could have their own library of thousands of free books.

Ethically, the primary conflict is jobs versus the environment.  But that will be true of all industries and businesses as time passes.  If all books, magazines and newspapers were read on digital readers it would have a positive impact on the environment, but at a terrible cost in jobs.

The secondary ethical concern is which format is better for promoting literacy, knowledge and culture?  This is much harder to judge until after ebooks have taken over.  We won’t know their full impact for a very long time.  But consider this:  What if you could hold a device that had every book you ever bought or read in your entire life with annotations, notes, and supplemental reference essays and reviews?  Would such a superbook library have a positive social impact?

I already miss record stores and LP album covers, but I don’t miss LPs.  I don’t even miss CDs, but I do miss shopping for music at record stores.  I have a subscription to Rhapsody Music and can listen to as many CDs as I can cram into my month for $9.99, but the fun of discovering new albums is gone.   From about 1965-1995 I bought 2-4 albums a week.  I loved going to record stores, but that activity is as ancient as horse and buggy rides. 

I’ve been going to bookstores 1-2 times a week since 1965.  It’s about the only shopping I still like to do recreationally.  I’ve bought far more books than I have ever read, or will ever have time to read.  I will truly miss bookstores if they disappear.

On the other hand, I discover all my books and music now from the Internet.  I’m in four online book clubs.  I’m far more involved with books, authors and readers then when I only shopped at bookstores.  Most of my friendships are based around talking about books or music.  I never really went to bookstores or record stores to socialize with the staff, or ask them for recommendations, although I’ve always liked meeting other book and music fans.

Amazon, with its supplemental content and customer reviews has been a quantum leap in helping me discover new books to read.  It’s far more social in helping me make book buying decisions than bookstores ever were.  Web 2.0 technology is a different kind of socializing.  It’s intellectual over physical. 

JWH 8/21/10

15 thoughts on “Ebook Ethics”

  1. Progress isn’t always a good thing, but like the horse and buggy, there comes a time when everything needs to be put to pasture.

    Smart phones are on their way to completely eliminating house phones. Digital pads will soon displace desktops and notebooks. Once people get over DVDs and Blue Ray, those will become dust collectors as well.

    I still spend quite a bit of times in bookstores, but not as much as before. I will really miss them if and when they go away. Perhaps we can start browsing digital bookshelves in digital bookstores. 😉

    1. I went to two bookstores yesterday, with two different people just to be social, but I didn’t buy anything. One thing about the Kindle is you can often get sample chapters to try and read in my reading chair. Or you can preview the book in your web browser. I have more patience doing this at home than at the store. Sadly, I think the alternatives to the bookstores are offering a better book buying experience.

      And even though I loved shopping for records in the LP days with their large beautiful covers, things are different now. With Rhapsody I can play whole albums when I wonder what they are like. No more taking $15 gambles. I hardly ever buy CDs anymore. Only when I find an album that I feel I never want to be without, and that just doesn’t happen very often any more. Yeah, things change.

  2. As someone who has watched publishing for many years, I want to correct several of your misconceptions.

    Bookstores were dying long before ebook started saturating the market.

    The primary problem with bookstores is that books have a very low profit margin which continues to remain stagnant, and the cost of a physical store, employees, taxes, etc. continues to rise at a staggering pace.

    According to the trade bookstore newsletter I receive, most indie bookstores are surviving by selling used books and book novelties where the profit margin is much higher.

    Meanwhile, the chains are struggling. Borders is on life support and probably won’t survive the next year while B&N is fighting for capital by selling stock as well as fighting a takeover.

    The only way to guarantee books on the shelves is to buy the space so the smaller publishers can’t afford it, and the big name authors are allotted most of the space for the publishers who do buy space.

    In the last week, Dorchester Publishing downgraded itself to an epublisher with POD trades because it could no longer afford to get books on those bookshelves and they were losing the free space.

    In many ways, ebooks are good in this situation because books which don’t reach those expensive shelves are afforded readers who can buy them as ebooks instead of not being read at all.

    As to used ebooks. They will never happen because the “First Sale Doctrine” which allows the sale of used paper books doesn’t apply to ebooks which are digital, not paper. For a more complete explanation, go here:


    1. It all appears very complex. I read that B&N and Borders are doing badly, but it seems like for years there’s always a new book superstore being built in my area. And in the course of my life, there seems to have been a boom in bookstores. I have four very nice bookstores I like to shop at, that are within easy driving range.

      I worry about ebooks hurting new bookstores as well as used book sellers. I buy lots of used books, but if those books had been available as ebooks and priced near the amount I was paying for used book plus shipping, I would just go with the ebook. Actually, I think price is the king when it comes to change. Books at Amazon are cheaper than bookstores, so I buy more from Amazon. If ebooks are cheaper still, I’ll buy them.

  3. You forget one of the strong advantages of e-books. They eliminate the horrible inventory problems that bookstores have. You can wax ecstatic about wandering through a large bookstore, but those are only available in large cities, while smaller venues have small bookstores that stock almost nothing of interest. Before Amazon I remember searching from Harvard Square to Portland Oregon looking for a particular book. Bookstores and publishers have never been a very good solution for distributing writing, they just have some characteristics that we’ve learned to love.

    We do have to figure out how to achieve the social purposes that bookstores have had. For that matter, perhaps we should discuss the effects that laptop computers and wifi have had on coffee houses.

  4. You base a lot of your discussion on DRM. Here it is important to remember that e-books and DRM are two different issues and need not go hand in hand in the long term. Even now, there are plenty of DRM-free books (e.g. at Project Gutenberg) and some tools that allow a circumvention of DRM-restrictions. (The latter opens a secondary issue of ethics and legality. In my personal opinion, DRM is itself an unethical restriction on “fitness of purpose” and a circumvention is, in turn, not unethical.) Add in to this an increasing anti-DRM sentiment in the public, and this may be a long-term non-issue.

    Some of your disadvantages seem specious to me, most notably “Ebooks could damage cultural heritage and history. Printed books can last for hundreds of years, and people value them, but ebooks probably have no lasting power at all.”: On the contrary, e-books can last more-or-less indefinitely, while printed books are far more fragile.

    1. Right now most of the books we “buy” have DRM. So I associate the two together. If Amazon went out of business, all those Kindle books people bought would be lost. If DRM disappears it will kill off some of my unethical considerations of ebooks. With a standard non-DRM format it should be possible to own ebooks for a lifetime, which I think would be very cool.

      But lets say civilization advances for two hundreds years and then collapses – wouldn’t all that digital culture be lost? Classical Greece didn’t thrive for long, but a fraction of its literary work did. What will people know of our century 2,400 years in the future?

    2. James is right on this one, and DRM is not the problem. We simply have no good archival storage for digital data. Magnetic storage only lasts for decades or less, to say nothing of the problems of reading obsolete media. It bothers me that we no longer have shoe boxes of photos for our grandchildren to look at. We only have bits that they won’t be able to read. I’ve been in the computer business since the early 60’s and I’ve watched the information disappear as technology changes.

      1. That’s why I considered this an ethical issue with ebooks – they could be damaging to culture.

        DRM is a separate ethical issue. People buy ebooks with DRM thinking they own the book, but they don’t. At best they are renting the book. If they are lucky, it will be for a very long time, but I don’t know if it’s a lifetime.

    3. The keyword here is “fraction”: A fraction of the Greek literature survived. Notably, what has survived has typically been in the form of copies of copies of copies. The disaster of Alexandria alone caused catastrophic damage.

      With digital media, in contrast, copies are so easy to make that no single disaster (barring a civilisation destroying one) will have a similar impact—and continual copying from one generation of medium to another is so easy that those works that are considered of high worth have a far better chance of surviving.

      The argument about the life-time of media is (again barring a civilisation destroying disaster) specious: Who says that we will have our literature lying around on single magnetic discs or CD-ROMs? More likely, websites (and their future descendants) like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive will store our knowledge in a mirrored manner, where every defect hard-drive (respectively future storage unit) in any mirror site is replaced in a timely manner and without data loss. Similarly, why keep photos of grand-children just in an external archive-unit? Keep them on the harddrive, make regular backups, and (should the harddrive fail) buy a bigger, better one and restore data from the backup.

      Finally, the Greek society (or the Roman, for that matter) did not collapse in the manner that would be necessary to lose the ability to construct new media and new reading devices.

      1. “Finally, the Greek society (or the Roman, for that matter) did not collapse in the manner that would be necessary to lose the ability to construct new media and new reading devices.”

        What? Yeah, remeber when they unearthed the library of Alexandria and they found really old I-phones, and laptops…Ha ha.

        I think I know what you meant, that the civilization didn’t suddenly fall overnight. But at first glance it’s an odd paragraph.

      2. When people don’t even make backups of their computers, how do you expect them to make copies of old material on new media? The evidence is that it just isn’t happening. The nice thing about old photos is that no effort is required to keep them.

        Also, your statement about copies of copies just isn’t true. Consider, for example, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian tablets. The stories were often copied, the day-to-day materials not. I wish I could believe your story, but history tells me otherwise.

      3. Mike, you miss the point: “day-to-day” materials are not the important issue—your family photos may be important to you, but even a few generations into the future, no-one will care. (There may be a historian investigating life in 2010 or a grandchild’s grandchild who want to find out what you looked like and how you lived, but their interest will not be comparable to the interest you have.) What is important is the preservation of science, history, great literature and art, and similar—and here digital media have a major advantage. (Again, with reservations for a civilization-destroying event.) A similar advantage is at least available to those who wish to preserve their day-to-day data—should they chose not to use this advantage, then that is their own loss.

        In addition, I fear that you overestimate the durability of old photos: They deteriorate noticeably over time, sun exposure can ruin them completely, and there is always the risk of destruction through, say, fire, flooding, playing children, or careless handling by adults. (Similar statements apply to e.g. books.)

      4. I’m wondering if we are too anal about preserving everything. I’d love to have photos, letters and journals from my ancesters, but how important is that? The way of the world is to forget. It’s like how our brains don’t retain everything. How do we decide what’s worth saving?

        I’ve read we’re going to be producing zettabytes of data soon. Do we need to save everything?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s