My first name doesn’t come on magnets

I’ve trained for decades in the art of patiently waiting for people to butcher my name. It’s often a teacher or customer service official who has to read aloud from a list. I listen to them breeze through Daniel and Jennifer and even Dwayne, but inevitably, there’s a break in their rhythm. “James! Carrie! Karima! Stephanie! Kevin!” Pause. “Bar—” Pause. They look around the room and then look back at their list. Their confidence falters. The declarative tone applied to the names before mine gives way to a weak, interrogative stumbling:

Barry? Barrington? Baracuda? Bartuna? Bartender? Bartunda? Bartholomew? Bart? Baritone? Baritone Dave? Barathunde? Bar—? Brad!!

The person who called me Brad was engaged in the most lazy and hilarious form of wishful thinking, but all the others kind of, sort of, maybe make some sense. This experience is so common in my life that I now entirely look forward to it. Like a child on Christmas morning who hasn’t yet been told that Santa is a creation of consumer culture maintained by society to extend the myth of “economic growth,” I eagerly await the gift of any new variation the next person will invent. Can I get a Beelzebub? Who will see a Q where none exists? How about some numbers or special characters? Can I get a hyphen, underscore, forward slash? Only after letting the awkward process run its public course do I step forward, volunteering myself as the bearer of the unpronounceable label and correct them. “That’s me. It’s Baratunde.”

—Baratunde Thurston, How to Be Black

Pulling it off the shelf

Since receiving two e-readers* over the winter holiday season, I’ve been reading a lot more lately. This is good, since one of my yearly goals is to read more books. So far, I’ve consumed 11 books in two months. I get a lot of the reading done on my commute, which consists of an hour-long trip on a crowded subway twice a day. I used to try to knit on the train but that became cumbersome, what with the suicidal double-pointed needles and all. Some projects are also less than portable, given their size. If I have small project that allows me to use circular needles, though, I bring it with me and load an audiobook onto my iPod. So I’m still “reading” while not technically reading.

I’ve only ever purchased one audiobook — and that was before I remembered that libraries lend digital audiobooks. (Bad librarian!) I hold 3 library cards, one for each public library system in New York City: New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Library. All three have e-books and e-audiobooks. However, because this past Christmas season was so successful for e-readers, all the good e-books are always checked out! So I’ve been buying books from the Google eBookstore.

However, not everyone can afford the luxury of buying e-books whenever their local library has no interesting e-books to be borrowed. For this reason, e-books — just like print books — have waiting lists, sometimes in the hundreds. So imagine everyone’s outrage at HarperCollins’s recent decision (and OverDrive’s compliance with the publisher) to limit their e-books to 26 uses per copy. That is, after an e-book has been checked out 26 times from a library, it self-destructs. Understandably, everyone is pissed. What’s really upsetting — especially from my librarian POV — is the fact that publishers are starting to sell licenses rather than goods. So when a library pays for an e-book collection, it doesn’t necessarily own it. So if the publisher decides to pull the content (1984, anyone?), the library is left several thousand dollars poorer with nothing to show for it.

Everyone should be outraged by this, not just librarians. Public & school libraries are funded by taxpayers. Academic libraries are funded by student tuition (and sometimes by taxpayers, too, if it’s a public institution). This affects everyone. For this reason, an e-book user’s bill of rights now exists. Read it and spread the word.

The eBook User’s Bill of Rights

Every eBook user should have the following rights:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

I believe in the free market of information and ideas.

I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can flourish when their works are readily available on the widest range of media. I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can thrive when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access, annotate, and share with other readers, helping this content find new audiences and markets. I believe that eBook purchasers should enjoy the rights of the first-sale doctrine because eBooks are part of the greater cultural cornerstone of literacy, education, and information access.

Digital Rights Management (DRM), like a tariff, acts as a mechanism to inhibit this free exchange of ideas, literature, and information. Likewise, the current licensing arrangements mean that readers never possess ultimate control over their own personal reading material. These are not acceptable conditions for eBooks.

I am a reader. As a customer, I am entitled to be treated with respect and not as a potential criminal. As a consumer, I am entitled to make my own decisions about the eBooks that I buy or borrow.

I am concerned about the future of access to literature and information in eBooks. I ask readers, authors, publishers, retailers, librarians, software developers, and device manufacturers to support these eBook users’ rights.

These rights are yours. Now it is your turn to take a stand. To help spread the word, copy this entire post, add your own comments, remix it, and distribute it to others. Blog it, Tweet it (#ebookrights), Facebook it, email it, and post it on a telephone pole.

This bill of rights is similar to the one drawn up by librarian (and my colleague) Alycia Sellie and technologist Matthew Goins: Readers’ Bill of Rights for Digital Books. It actually predates the one quoted above so it is definitely worth a read.


* Yes, I have two e-readers. It’s not that I’m greedy (although that’s partially true), it’s just that I got one as a gift (B&N Nook) right around the same time I purchased one for myself (BeBook Neo). I like them both and I can’t choose the one I want to keep! I did just lend the Neo to a colleague of mine who’s doing research on e-books, e-readers, and readers’ rights, though. I guess I’ll see how the Nook fares while the other one is in her possession.