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Will retailers start playing Big Brother with our content?

New services will test the boundaries between retailers and publishers

One summer morning in 2009 countless Kindle customers awoke to discover that Amazon had remotely deleted a couple of George Orwell books from their devices. There was much debate about whether this step should have been taken and Amazon eventually noted that “we are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.”

That’s a smart adjustment, but how much control should an ebook retailer have over the content it distributes? Should the retailer be allowed to alter any of the content?

I started thinking about this when I considered how a service like Hiptype works. As you can see in their About page, they’ve “designed a plug-in that publishers can add to their eBooks to gain valuable insights about how to make their books better for readers and more successful in bookstores.”

I love it. They’re gathering extremely useful data for publishers by simply adding some code to the ebook.

But what if an ebook retailer decides they don’t like this service? Maybe they’ve engineered their own customer data gathering solution and are planning to charge publishers for it. Or maybe they just decide they don’t want a third-party to have access to their customer data.

I spoke about this with one of our production experts at O’Reilly, Adam Witwer, and he tells me “it would probably be trivial” for a retailer to find the code and remove it. Doing so across an entire library of titles would be a bit time-consuming, but far from impossible.

But should a retailer be allowed to go in and remove the code for this or any other service? If so, where do you draw the line? What if you publish a book that includes some unflattering commentary about that retailer? Should they be able to edit that out?

I believe the answer is no, a thousand times no. A retailer should have absolutely no right whatsoever to alter the content they’re selling, even if it includes code for a service they might ultimately want to offer as well.

Hiptype is just the start. We will undoubtedly see many new and innovative services that operate through a plug-in or a bit of code in the ebook.

Will these services be allowed to survive and will retailers keep their hands off our content?

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Comments: 9

  1. Joe, you’re bringing up an extremely important issue here. It’s the battle for big data (and the money associated with it) that is ultimately going to shape this battle ground. For example, I use a great service to turn my tweets into stories, but that service does not allow the shortened URL in my social media dashboard to go live. My guess as to why? The link provides an important data pathway that the story service needs to track and control for a whole host of reasons. You can only imagine the valuable metrics that might be generated from watching a reader interact with his or her library of eBooks. As the example I provide and the recent changes with the Twitter API indicate, the concerns you express here are already presenting themselves in the broader content marketplace. These issues will come to the fore much more quickly than most anticipate, and since the players in this space are big, the implications are huge for readers. Publishers, authors and the reading public will need to watch these issues carefully. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. 

    • You’re absolutely right, Kathy. This is all about data and ownership of the customer relationship. And as you point out, it goes well beyond the ebook publishing world.

  2. I agree that the issues presented by the bD phenomenon are bigger than e-books and their necessary devices. A fundamental aspect is who owns the data, and is the service separate from ownership of the device. Bruce Willis has a lawsuit with Apple over this very broad issue. Its not for any individual to decide, but a legal system informed by, perhaps, computer engineering theorists (however many of those exist).

    My hunch is that whatever is ultimately decided will be guided by privacy right precedents.
    When I first learned of hiptype I too was intrigued, but I am always concerned about the sample size and its degree of randomness. Frequency counts, which hiptype is currently offering, are interesting and fun to contemplate but without full disclosure about the sample field they are derived from it is merely entertainment, not anything to use as a foundation for plausible inferences. If there is a potential for the data to be manipulated in any way, or selected with prejudice and no transparency, it is useless.

    • Sample size is indeed important and while I’m sure it’s small today for Hiptype I have no doubt it will grow significantly. That growth could come from Hiptype or its competitors which will undoubtedly include the big players like Amazon.

  3. If I even *think* my retailer is going to be “reading over my shoulder,” that’s IT for doing business with them. Ever.

    • But what if the program has an opt-in, so you could easily say no to it? If they’re smart they’ll also offer some sort of incentive for saying yes, of course. And they’d have to anonymize the results.

  4. The big issue here is the evolution of the definitions of intellectual property and private property.  It is incumbent on us all to keep these definitions pure and sound.

    Obviously, private companies can make all kinds of agreements and arrangements with suppliers and customers, and “legitimize” those arrangements with convenient-to-ignore “shrink wrap EULAs” and the like.  The problem with having it become a widespread (and therefore normal and customary) practice for vendors to exert such control over product is that when it gets to that point, it becomes impractical to combat it on the basis of what should have been obvious legal principles.

    It may be necessary to pass legislation, explicitly prohibiting vendors from modifying content, regardless of circumstances.

    • Yes, we need to get to more of a model where you don’t just have access to the ebook, you actually own it. Either way though I don’t feel a retailer or other middleman should have the right to modify it without the publisher or IP owner’s consent.

  5. No seller of books (or any other thing that they don’t own the rights to) should be able to take back, modify, etc. anything that buyers have downloaded.

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