Buy from Amazon and Apple and it’s you that ends up owned

The physical ownership of forbidden books has marched hand in hand with enlightenment. That tradition is now being torn to shreds

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 28 November 2014 18:40

Readers of Nick Hornby’s debut novel High Fidelity will remember that much of it takes place in a record shop on Holloway Road called Championship Vinyl. Not surprisingly, Hollywood deemed Holloway a postcode too far when it adapted the 1995 book. The studio installed John Cusack and his music-buff sidekick in a sunny gaff in Chicago. At least, in 2000, Hornby’s obsessive blokes still sold rotating plastic discs. A decade later, the film business would have treated any story set in a music or bookshop as an antique period piece to feature (if at all) alongside samurai yarns or Roman sword-and-sandal epics.

Could the digital tide ever turn? Nostalgists and retro-stylists will take comfort from the news that sales of vinyl records have doubled in a year to reach the highest level since 1997 – that remote era when Blur, Björk, Radiohead and Oasis played the soundtrack for New Labour’s landslide. Daft Punk, one of the rare survivors from 1997, managed the second-bestselling vinyl album of 2013. Get Lucky? The French electronica duo did. Trend-hunting DJs, aficionados of vintage kit and audiophiles who simply prefer the sound have, over the past five years, converted a niche £3m sector into one worth £20m.

That’s still a narrow fringe. According to the music-industry umbrella group IFPI, total digital sales around the world reached $5.9bn (£3.8bn) last year. Two-thirds came from downloads and one-third from the rapid rise in streaming. However, as with books and films, the decade-long headline story of a boom in digital consumption obscures some interesting small print. Physical formats still account for more than half (51.4 per cent) of all music revenues. In 2013, major markets such as the UK and US witnessed what IFPI calls “a slow-down in the rate of physical decline”. After a certain age, we all pray for something like that. Meanwhile, I retain a lonely and somewhat Hornby-esque belief that the recording quality of audio cassettes (a term now deleted from the OED) had hit a peak just at the moment when the soulless and clinical CD took over a quarter of a century ago.

Over in the domain of printed or pixelated words, e-book sales in Britain have reached roughly 25 per cent of the entire market (and a third for fiction) – substantial enough, but a lower figure than several guesstimates touted around the publishing scene not long ago. Some analysts perceive a digital “plateau”, though others spot another steep electronic slope rising behind it. Streaming services such as Netflix for films or Spotify for music soar ahead (each now boasts a global total of around 50 million users and/or subscribers). Yet cultural artefacts in solid form have shown both resilience and adaptability.

Long may they flourish. Not only because of the joys of book design, the pleasures of CD cover artwork and sleeve notes, or the velvety rituals of a visit to the actual, proper flicks. Something much more substantial is at stake. The previous generation built up and curated private archives of cultural touchstones by purchasing them: as paperbacks, records, tapes, CDs and DVDs. When they borrowed, as from the public library, they signed up to a set of shared social values.

In the online universe, no one owns the art they love. Thanks to the corporate stranglehold of digital rights management, it sits in the cloud under the control of the tech giants who license it. With e-books or music downloads, let alone the obviously transitory process of streaming, the licence model rules. Consumers hire access to the product but do not acquire rights in their own reproductions of it. Listen to the strident mood-music of Apple’s standard end-user agreement for iTunes: “Products transacted through the Service are licensed, not sold, to You for use only… The licensor (“Application Provider”) reserves all rights not expressly granted to You.”

Not only do the digital leviathans control in all ways the books, music and films that they consent to let you borrow (“The Application Provider, and its licensors, reserve the right to change, suspend, remove, or disable access to any Services at any time without notice”), but DRM means they may fish at liberty in your device for information about your behaviour and tastes, from the passages you choose to highlight on your Amazon Kindle to the exact geographical location of your iPad. Apple’s legalese again: “You agree that Application Provider may collect and use technical data and related information, including but not limited to technical information about Your device, system and application software…”

In an improbably perfect cause célèbre, Amazon once wiped copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from e-readers. Alarms should ring. The physical ownership of forbidden or dangerous books has marched hand-in-hand with enlightenment and liberation across the centuries. From William Tyndale’s English-language Bibles in the 1530s to the glued-and-stapled samizdat pamphlets that helped to overturn the Soviet empire, possessing – and passing on – the words feared by kings, priests and commissars have advanced freedom. Now, the rights of withdrawal, modification and post-acquisition censorship claimed by digital near-monopolies may tear that tradition to shreds.

A couple of years ago, I attended a Unesco symposium on the future of the book held in the former royal villa at Monza outside Milan. Although digital-age platitudes did drizzle down like the spring rain of Lombardy, proceedings were much enlivened by Richard Stallman. Like the “virtual reality” pioneer Jaron Lanier, he’s one of those computer-science trailblazers who now issues prophetic warnings against the evils unleashed by the hi-tech revolution. Stallman, a free-software activist who developed the open-access “GNU” operating system that led to Linux, was actually handing round printed flyers. They contained his stirring manifesto against e-books.

For Stallman: “In an age where business dominates our governments and writes our laws, every technological advance offers business an opportunity to impose new restrictions on the public.” After listing all the advantages of the physical object (above all, “Nobody has the power to destroy your book”) and the constraints that Amazon imposes, he concludes: “Even one of these infringements makes these e-books a step backward from printed books.” As DRM systems track, monitor and sell on every customer, “technologies that could have empowered us are used to chain us instead”.

Stallman, Lanier and their fellow revisionists – or maybe penitents – still sound like voices in the wilderness. The risks posed in theory by the digital archiving of our cultural lives feel abstract compared with the benefits in practice. It comes down to a matter of trust. We often assume that faith in major institutions has either eroded or irrevocably broken down. But hang on a bit (or a byte). With corporate digital media, the reverse applies. Consumers entrust their pasts and their passions – their stock of cultural capital – to Amazon, Google, Apple and their peers with hardly a second thought. Private individuals now exhibit a boundless belief not in the state but in the firm.

What might break that faith? Stray cases of remotely erased files do surface from time to time. Yet any widespread defection from the creed of online culture would probably take a mass wipe-out – or corrupting – of personal collections. Meanwhile, readers, listeners and viewers in their scores of millions transfer their memories, their dreams and their enthusiasms to the T-shirted tycoons of the West Coast. In return they get no guarantees, few safeguards and zero commitment to permit anything beyond limited, reversible access. As the online mantra runs, “If the service is free, the product is you.” Most digital culture comes cheaper than its physical equivalent rather than gratis, but the data-harvesters still target every user. Who cares? In Bezos, Nadella, Zuckerberg, Schmidt and Cook we trust.

So far, the back-to-vinyl brigade – alongside their comrades with a nose in well-bound books – care more for the aesthetics of tangible artworks than their ethics. In You Are Not a Gadget, his eloquent counterblast against the digital empire, Jaron Lanier speaks for them when he contrasts the “watercolour world” of traditional, analogue art against the yes-no, on-off binary crudities at the heart of machine reproduction. It’s a beautiful argument, but few of the Take That fans who from Monday can hear the band’s new album on Google’s Play Music streaming service will pay much heed to it. All the aces of price, range, access and convenience still sit in the hands of the cyber-giants. And the European Parliament only exposes its impotence when (as it did this week) it votes for the break-up of Google.

For Lanier, “Digital network architectures naturally incubate monopolies.” A sale this month of 10,000 or so vinyl copies of Pink Floyd’s new album, The Endless River, will hardly turn that tide. But our blind faith in hi-tech enterprises and their jealously guarded memory-banks represents not just a hostage to fortune but a gamble on the future. Or maybe on eternity. On 1 April 2010, the now-defunct Gamestation stores parodied the DRM enforcers with a contract that stipulated: “By placing an order via this website on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant us a non-transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul.” 88 per cent of customers signed.

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