Apples and Oranges: eBooks and the Justice Department

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the Justice Department’s decision to sue Apple and several major book publishers who are accused of “price fixing” eBooks. There’s a lot of debate, naturally, about Apple’s business practices and their market domination of music with iTunes (not to mention Amazon’s equally questionable business practices) and also about what the “real” price of an eBook should be (should it be more in conjunction with a print edition or should it cost less because it costs less to produce?). Personally, I side with the camp that finds Amazon more at fault than Apple, for setting prices that undercut both publishers AND authors, as nicely summed up in this New York Times article “Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis” by David Carr.

By coincidence, this is the week in my Collection Management class that we are discussing legal, copyright, and ethical issues in libraries, and one of our readings brought up this Supreme Court decision from the 1984 Sony Corp. of American v. University City Studios:

The monopoly privileges that Congress may authorize are neither unlimited nor primarily designed to provide a special private benefit. Rather, the limited grant is a means by which an important public purpose may be achieved. It is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of a special reward, and to allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited period of exclusive control has expired.

It seems to me that this quote speaks to the heart of the debate about eBooks and the battle between Amazon and Apple, and I think it strengthens Carr’s argument that allowing Amazon to create a minority in which eBook prices are artificially driven down to allow Amazon to drive Kindle sales is contrary to the Supreme Court’s position in 1984. Granted, the current Supreme Court Justices may think differently, but I believe it is wrong for the Justice Department to allow Amazon to create an almost state-approved monopoly that does little to protect the meager profits made of authors. In the long run, if authors can’t make enough money by writing to support future creative activities, won’t the number of books available eventually start to dry up? Or worse, be nothing but endless fanfiction-turned-legitimate-novel Twilight spinoffs?

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