What’s Next? Book Match?

November 16, 2011

If I can rip my CD to an MP3, why can’t I scan my book to an EPUB? That is the question running through my mind as I ponder the new iTunes Match service from Apple. Briefly, for $24.99 a year the service scans the music on your hard drive and then matches it with songs available through iTunes to provide online access to your music.

Presumably, the music you are matching has been ripped from your CDs; iTunes offers to automatically rip, or extract and convert, CDs you play to have them stored as digital files on your computer. But in reality, Apple’s service does not check for the origin of the file. For $24.99 a year, you can legitimize all of the songs [or at least up to 25,000] that you might have “found” while surfing the net. Even better, by running “found” tracks through iTunes Match, Apple will let you download clean, higher-quality versions of the songs for no additional cost.

So where is my Book Match service?

Again, if I can rip a CD to an MP3 why can’t I scan a book to an EPUB? According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), ripping CDs to hard drives is a violation of copyright, but it has become a widely practiced and socially accepted breaking of the law—much to the recording industry’s chagrin. The RIAA suffered a large public outcry in 2008 when it tried to claim that copying music to an iPod was definitely illegal. Yet recent statements stemming from the launch of Amazon’s Cloud Player service (similar to iTunes Match) received additional pushback from the RIAA.

The official RIAA website is a bit coy about the whole issue: “There’s no legal ‘right’ to copy the copyrighted music on a CD onto a CD-R. However, burning a copy of CD onto a CD-R, or transferring a copy onto your computer hard drive or your portable music player, won’t usually raise concerns [if it is from a CD you legally own]” [emphasis mine]. The website’s anti-piracy page also explains something about being permitted to do this only if “the CD you bought expressly permits you to do so,” but I cannot find a CD that gives me that express right. Other case law states that it is legal to “space-shift” CDs to digital music players: In the 1999, RIAA v. Diamond Multimedia decision, the court ruled that “consumers may, for example, legitimately transfer music from their audio CDs to their hard drive, convert the files to MP3 format, and either play them on the computer or download copies of the files to the Rio or to other devices.”

So why has ripping CDs become de facto legal despite de jure confusion? Because most people realize that re-purchasing The Beatles’ albums each time a new format comes out gets a bit tedious and expensive. When iTunes held a huge press conference about getting access to The Beatles catalog, many tech bloggers covered it as a much ado about nothing issue. If they liked The Beatles, they had already ripped their CDs (or records even!) into iTunes. But as The Cult of Mac noted, it was a big deal because it represented a final, major holdout going legally digital. It was a case of The Beatles on iTunes de jure, not de facto.

The question of scanning ebooks has been widely disputed for a couple of years. TeleRead, a major ebook blog, covered the legal vs. ethical scanning issue in a comprehensive round-up. That April 6, 2010, post gave the industry five years to figure things out. With the launch of iTunes Match, Amazon’s Cloud Player and many other upload your music to the cloud services, I am giving the publishers much less leeway. The Kindle Lending Library might be the spark that sets things off, but the larger uproar will come from an increasing number of ebook reader–owning members of the general public that start to question why they are buying the same books on their shelves a second (or third if you switch from an EPUB to Kindle reader or back) time to read them on a new device.

When will it become as accepted, as de facto legal, for me to scan my books to EPUB as it is to rip my CDs to my iPod? I am guessing sooner, rather than later.