E-Books and Their Potential Impact on Book Law

Deven Desai

Deven Desai is an associate professor of law and ethics at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also the first, and to date, only Academic Research Counsel at Google, Inc., and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and the Yale Law School. Professor Desai’s scholarship examines how business interests, new technology, and economic theories shape privacy and intellectual property law and where those arguments explain productivity or where they fail to capture society’s interest in the free flow of information and development. His work has appeared in leading law reviews and journals including the Georgetown Law Journal, Minnesota Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, and U.C. Davis Law Review.

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5 Responses

  1. How are eBooks a threat to publishers? Companies often want to fight new technology rather than embrace it (movie companies fought home video before embracing it and making more money). Digital distribution is a natural evolution, a beneficial to publishing more books (using the Long Tail that Amazon has already begun mastering).

    On that I far from recognize Amazon’s Kindle as giving too much control. It uses extensive DRM, charging $1.99 for public domain books, $1 to access a small number of approved blogs (250 at release), and $13.99 for New York Times access, all of which is already free online and Kindle has internet access – so why charge.

    The only threat to book publishers is failing to embracing the internet as the music and movie industries have. Business models will need to change, but that’s innovation. And that’s supposed to be a good thing in capitalism.

  2. Deven says:


    Of course ebooks are a potential threat. As the post notes, authors could cut out publishers as a middleman. Whether that will happen and how publishers will react remains to be seen. Did you read the links? The Bryne article shows the range of possibilities for music and those seem to track text as well. The point about models changing is the point the post makes.

    As for the control issue, I am not sure what you are saying. The post suggests the control issue applies more for new texts. The public domain stuff and charging for it goes to whether free versions (it takes time to convert the material) will be used or whether folks will find that Sony and other versions are worth the payment.

  3. Deven,

    The threat to publishers is only if publishers don’t offer something to the authors. Musicians are leaving record labels because these labels aren’t representing them well – the labels sue their fans, limit their online revenue, and withhold royalties. Book publishers will always have a place if they offer value to their real customers, the authors. The strength of a publisher is in marketing, getting the author on talk shows and stuff, in addition to getting the book in stores, online and brick and mortar. Publishers also help fact-check, handle acquiring artwork or rights for passages used. A publisher will have a large network to make this happen where few individuals do.

    This is why musicians, like Madonna, are leaving record labels for marketing firms. They still want representation to handle the business while they do the art. They just want someone who will serve their best interests.

    On control, maybe I misinterpreted what you were saying – I took you to say that Kindle gave too much control/power to the user to use it and its content as they please. That I would disagree with. Please elaborate if I’m getting this wrong.

  4. Deven says:


    Yes that is the point the post makes. Publishers will be threatened unless they change their model. And they are threatened in general because new models and competition will likely displace their ability to stay at the current system. Please try the Byrne piece. It is on point and shows the range of publisher outcomes.

    Not only was I not saying the Kindle gave too much power to users; I was and am saying that it gives too much power to Amazon.

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    1. As a matter of technology, and as I’ve noted in a comment to one of Deven’s earlier posts, I see lots of people on the Tokyo subway reading print, or reading their mobile phone’s LCD, but I don’t recall seeing anyone reading e-book readers, even from Sony. I also remember my “Dilbert”-ish boss of a decade or so ago telling my colleagues and me about the paperless office. Right.

    2. “It has a chance to avoid the mistakes and adherence to old business models the music and film industry made.” “Publishers will be threatened unless they change their model. And they are threatened in general because new models and competition will likely displace their ability to stay at the current system.”

    It’s sad that we so easily accept the rhetoric of business models and competition in a matter of such cultural moment.

    First of all, this attitude is a relatively recent one in the publishing business. See, e.g., André Schiffrin’s “The Business of Books”. Second, it’s also especially American. Some publishers in Germany, France and elsewhere feel that they have a civic duty to make works available, even when they don’t sell. E.g., a publisher interview I read in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about 2-1/2 years ago mentioned that they thought it their civic duty to get Nobel laureates’ works translated and published in German, even if they sold only a few hundred copies. For evidence that this attitude is an old one, and that it could be maintained in the face of technological change, see, e.g., “The Rise and Fall of the House of Ullstein,” by Herman Ullstein (1943).

    Now, possibly digital distribution will make it easier to distribute some less-profitable works. But for how long?

    3. Maybe not very long, because there’s another technological issue: the obsolescence of formats. You can still read printed stuff that’s centuries old (and even older stuff that was baked into clay), but try to read 30-year-old digital stuff and you run into big problems. (Maybe some of you don’t remember punched cards, to say nothing of punched tape.) Back during the dot-com boom I recall reading a book called “The Digital Dark Ages”; ironically it now seems to be out of print. A short précis of the argument can be found here: http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla63/63kuny1.pdf . I myself have lost plenty of early 1990’s work product that was on floppies, either because it was in WordPerfect versions that Microsoft Word ceased to be able to read long ago, or on diskettes that became corrupt with the passage of time.

    Embracing change and all can be great. But it’s a great weakness of American culture to be so ready to justify, or even celebrate, every result of market forces, even when the results are stupid. There are times when society needs to sit back and ask, is this change appropriate? This strikes me as one of them.

    So yes, there may be interesting legal issues out of all this. But enjoy them now, because in a few decades you might not be able to recall them.