Before I have my say, know that I love books–the kind with bindings and jackets and heft and creamy paper. Books on paper hold as cherished a place in my heart as yours.

But books on paper are not long for this world. Some will survive, much as vinyl records have endured the advent of tape, CDs and digital audio. But like vinyl records, books on paper will become a niche product for purists and oddballs. The rest will be collectors’ items and garage sale curios until, finally, books on paper are trash. Sad, but inevitable.

We have a transition problem. I want to own my books in digital formats, but I don’t want to have to buy them again when I’ve already paid for the content on paper. And, I want to be able to give or loan parts of my library to others. After all, the greatest joy of owning a book I’ve benefitted from reading is to pass it on to a new reader.

Shouldn’t I be able to trade my paper copy of a book for its digital copy for a nominal sum without having to repurchase the content, and shouldn’t I be able to give the digital book to someone else just as I can gift the paper edition? That is, some of the cost of a digital book is the cost to digitize and distribute the content and some is to compensate the author, editor and publisher for the intellectual property. Must I pay twice for the intellectual property I already own on paper? Must I lose my rights to transfer the content once it loses tangible form?

If our experience with vinyl records, cassette tapes and CDs is any indication, we certainly aren’t going to be able to exchange one medium for another at a nominal cost. We will have to buy the content in the new medium and sell our old copy to anyone that will buy it, if we hope to recoup some value from the old media. The old media then wends its way through the secondary market, and while some of it finds its place with collectors, most will end up in landfills or be pulverized and recycled as coffee cup sleeves. Books are largely biodegradable and won’t be a huge environmental headache like all that vinyl and polycarbonate; but we’d be better off if we put on our thinking caps now and came up with wiser ways to dispose of the flood of books that will be trashed in the next decade or two, insuring that the inevitable transition to e-books doesn’t become a shameful chapter in some future archeologist’s history of the 21st century.

As far as giving our books away, the prospects are promising. As with music, the risk is not that you’ll give away books you own but that you’ll give away a copy and keep a copy without generating new revenue to content owners. Moral suasion, digital rights management technologies, civil lawsuits, piracy prosecutions and even efforts by music publishers to inject malware into illicit distribution channels have all proven ineffective in halting the proliferation of free (or, if you prefer, stolen) digital music. The only approach that seems to be working is making the cost of content so nominal that piracy isn’t worth pursuing, coupled with modest restrictions on sharing, permitting you to grant usage rights to a small circle of additional users despite being unable to transfer outright ownership. It’s unclear whether purchasers will ultimately secure the right to give content away or resell it. Subscription libraries also show promise whereby you can stream any songs the library has purchased, and both the ownership and lending library models seem to be able to co-exist.

Will books go this way? Probably, but books enjoy a different status than music. Recall that making books freely available to the public is very much a fresh idea in human history. In the English speaking world, it took the immense philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–a scant 100 years ago–to make the public library a fixture on town squares. As a result, free availability of books is seen as an essential characteristic of an open, productive and democratic society, whereas music tends to be associated more with entertainment and leisure. The perceive differences suggest that greater political will be brought to bear on efforts to restrict book sharing, thereby insuring our freedom to pass on the ideas in books won’t be sacrificed to purely commercial concerns.

Let’s hope so. It took a savvy businessman like Carnegie to afford us the luxury to take freely available books for granted. It would be sadly ironic if savvy business people took it all away.

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