Licensing Their Content for Your Usage


In the wake of calls to remove controversial material from the books of well-known 20th-century authors like Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie, a less discussed topic is how publishers adjust the content for digital versions. Recent discoveries about the unauthorized edits of books like Stine’s “Goosebumps” show how customers may not realize their rights when purchasing an e-book. Amazon’s Kindle and Google Play platforms, for instance, can alter digital books in various ways without a clear explanation, and customers are not offered the chance to opt-out.

Many popular media services offer licenses which grant rights to the publisher to control usage of their content. For instance, Apple’s terms of service mentions the removal of purchased content could occur at any time and without specifying why. This provides smaller companies the capacity to manage their media without the need for physical production.

However, the language present in the companies’ websites may deceive customers into believing they have lordship when they do not. Amazon’s Kindle, for instance, provides buyers with the same “buy now” button they could use to purchase physical media and encourages users to “own” their books. Such lingo might imply ownership when in reality, the customer is “licensing” the right to read or watch the content.

Colin Gavaghan, professor of digital futures at the University of Bristol Law School, says that “in the past there were restrictions to what you could do with media — you could only make a certain number of copies, for example — but there was no really effective way of policing that. Now the owner can just directly control what you do with these things.”

Consumer rights experts such as Jason Schultz, director of New York University’s Technology Law and Policy Clinic and co-author of “The End of Ownership,” suggest that companies should be more transparent with the user agreements “right up front in big letters, not the fine print.”

However, publishers are often allowed to make low-key changes to e-books such as correcting typos, changing phrases and adding passages. Little, Brown and Company, responsible for titles from James Patterson, Evelyn Waugh and Donna Tartt, claim that this is done at editors’ and authors’ discretion and usually not identified publicly.

While streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify are always subject to conditional access, this isn’t the case for other digital media on the same platforms. There have been reports in the past about users losing access to their movies or TV shows, but there’s yet to be a major case of visual media being edited post-release. It’s only a matter of time, however, until such an instance occurs.

Ultimately, it is essential to be aware of the terms of service every time we make a purchase of digital products. Doing so could help avoid unforeseen circumstances of authors having their work edited without explicit permission, as well as preventing any misunderstandings of product rights and regulations.